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Mass. has a new plan for judging public schools

In the coming year, parents, students, and teachers can expect to see some big changes in the way the state judges the performance of schools.

Although MCAS scores will remain the predominant feature, the revamped school accountability system will introduce some new measures, such as tracking the number of students who take rigorous college-level courses.

The goal is to create a system of schools that can produce graduates who are ready for college and employment regardless of their socioeconomic background or life circumstances. It is a job that begins as soon as students start kindergarten and it means monitoring whether students are becoming proficient readers, grasping algebraic concepts, developing their critical thinking skills, or skipping school, among many other factors.


Here’s a rundown of the plan:

What’s prompting the changes to the way Massachusetts judges school performance?

State education officials are revising their school accountability system to comply with changes in federal law — many years in the making — that were approved by former president Barack Obama in December 2015 under the Every Student Succeeds Act, frequently called ESSA. It replaces the No Child Left Behind Act.

Massachusetts learned on Sept. 21 the US Education Department had approved its plan.

What is new?

The new federal law requires states to use a broader set of data to assess school quality. State standardized test scores will remain the core feature of the system and so will graduation rates for high schools. But the new system will also incorporate other measures.

One new measure will be school quality, which would capture such data points as the percentage of students who are chronically absent, those who successfully complete ninth-grade courses, or those who finish a broad range of challenging coursework.

The system will also evaluate a school’s progress in helping students who lack fluency in English. This measure, which will track how quickly these students pick up the English language, will apply only to schools that have at least 20 students classified as English language learners, affecting 836 schools out of 1,850 statewide.


What will change?

Massachusetts will stop relying on a measure that tracked a school’s progress in cutting achievement gaps in half between students of different backgrounds over a five-year period. However, state officials will still monitor the closing of achievement gaps. The new system will measure student performance in the aggregate and for specific subgroups based on race, income levels, and other student characteristics.

How could this affect my school’s rating?

Hard to say. The state currently assigns schools to one of five performance levels. The highest-performing schools are in Level 1, which is based on such measures as overall test scores and successfully hitting designated annual targets for cutting achievement gaps in half.

But the state might move to a six-tier rating system. The changes are being explored to address new federal rules that require greater identification of schools in need of intervention and local concern that some of the current school levels are too broad. For instance, 80 percent of the state’s schools are in Levels 1 and 2, making it difficult to determine if some need targeted attention.

Will students still take the MCAS every year?

If you were hoping for less testing, you might want to stop reading right now. The new federal rules still require annual testing in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and at least one grade in high school. Massachusetts will also keep testing students in the sciences in various grades, and it will continue its effort to move MCAS testing online.


Will high school students still need to pass the MCAS in order to graduate?

Students will still need to pass the tests for math, English, and science, and down the road a social studies test could be added.

When do the changes go into effect?

The new system should be ready to judge school performance in fall 2018. But much work remains. This fall, the state education department will gather the proposed data and run simulations on how all the state’s schools would stack up. But some data points, such as what will constitute broad and challenging coursework in high school, are still being debated.

Once officials get a solid understanding of how the new system works, they will craft any revisions to state regulations that are necessary to implement the system, which would probably be presented to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education this winter. The public will have a chance to weigh in before a board vote.

It remains unclear if any changes to state law would be needed. There’s also a chance that the state might need to file an amendment to its proposed plan with federal education officials, depending on whether any concerns from the public or kinks in the simulations raise the need for revisions.

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