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How do you judge a school? Mass. looks to expand the criteria

Students in Revere tried the online PARCC test in 2014. Massachusetts officials are looking to broaden the way schools are judged, moving beyond test scores and graduation rates to other measures.Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff/file/Globe Staff

State officials are looking to broaden the way school performances are judged to comply with new federal standards, moving beyond test scores and graduation rates to other measures, such as the atmosphere a school creates and the availability of art, music, and college-level courses.

The goal is to provide the public with a more holistic view of the quality of education at each school in Massachusetts by shining light on areas that get overlooked in a state accountability system that maintains a laser-like focus on standardized test scores.

Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said his agency has not yet decided how many new measures might be added.


“We want to make sure that collectively the indicators in the system provide more signals than noise,” Chester said. “One concern I have is if we have too many signals, it might not be clear where things are going well and where schools need to buckle down.”

Massachusetts is embarking on the revamp to bring its accountability system into compliance with changes that were signed into federal law by President Obama last December. Those changes, enacted under the Every Student Succeeds Act , require states to adopt at least one additional indicator of school quality or student success apart from standardized test scores.

The new requirement aims to address concerns that an intense focus on boosting standardized test results — primarily in math and English — has squeezed out enrichment opportunities and fails to acknowledge that schools may be having success in other areas, such as helping immigrant students learn English.

In that latter respect, the federal law now requires states to judge schools in part on their ability to help students learn English. States regularly test the fluency of English language learners as they progress through the system, but rarely include those scores in their school accountability systems. Inclusion of the scores could offer a new perspective on schools with large populations of immigrant students.


Chester said he expects to bring his recommendations to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education by February. If the proposal is approved by the board, it would then be sent to the US Department of Education for final approval. The first batch of ratings under the new accountability system would be released in the fall of 2018.

Under the new system, the state plans to stick with its five-level rating scale for school performances, with level 1 indicating high quality and level 5 indicating they are chronically underperforming.

Many educators, parents, and students have organized to advocate for changes they would like to see in the accountability system and have been turning out for community forums on the issue being held by the state education department. One still remains to be held, on Tuesday in Salem.

The list of new indicators under consideration is long: access to recess, availability of dual-immersion programs, foreign-language acquisition rates, student discipline data, community involvement, family engagement, kindergarten readiness, college completion rates, chronic absenteeism rates of students, educator evaluation ratings, teacher turnover, student attrition, ninth-grade pass rates, student “grit,” per-pupil spending, and average class sizes among others.

The Boston Student Advisory Council, which represents students citywide, is pushing for a strong indicator of school climate, believing that student satisfaction says a lot about school quality. But disagreement persists over how best to measure that. The state has suggested adding questions at the end of MCAS tests to assess students’ views on that in their school, but the advisory council would prefer a separate survey.


“We are concerned that adding questions to the MCAS will make the test feel even longer, and we might not get as much effective feedback because students are tired and they just want to hand the test in,” said Glorya Wornum, a project coordinator for the student advisory council who graduated from a Boston high school in 2015.

Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the revamp should be more than just a tweak. She said a major overhaul in the way the state judges schools is in order.

“It’s a ranking system primarily about test scores,” she said. “It provides the smallest amount of information about student learning and what we want our students to experience at school.”

The state’s accountability system came under fire at a Boston School Committee meeting in November before members voted 6-0 to shut down the low-performing Mattahunt Elementary School in an effort to avoid its going into receivership. Member Regina Robinson, who abstained from the vote, urged parents to lobby the state for changes to the school rating system, which she argued penalizes schools that serve students with the greatest academic challenges.

“The system is not working for cities like Boston, and it’s not working for communities of color,” said Robinson, who also is a Boston school parent. “We need to figure out a better way to hold schools accountable.”


But Chester said he doesn’t expect to recommend radical changes to the accountability system. Massachusetts’ current system, which measures the progress schools are making in closing achievement gaps among students of different backgrounds, is exactly what the new federal law calls for, he said.

And the federal law still requires test scores and graduation rates to account for the majority of a school’s rating, he said.

“The law is clear on judging school success — that the core academic indicators need to have more weight,” he said.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.