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At Boston high schools, 1,900 courses — but no process for evaluating their rigor

Interim Superintendent Laura Perille requested the course review three months ago.
Interim Superintendent Laura Perille requested the course review three months ago.(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File)

Boston’s approximately three dozen public high schools offer more than 1,900 courses, but the school system lacks a routine process for evaluating their rigor, resulting in courses with the same titles having wildly different syllabi, content, and quality, according to an internal School Department review.

That holds true even for classes that the school system has identified as aligning with a set of courses prescribed by the state that aim to ensure college readiness. Consequently, the uneven quality creates confusion over whether transcripts and grade point averages accurately reflect what students should know, the review found.

The discovery, as well as other concerns, prompted the School Department working group conducting the review to decide against urging the adoption of that state-recommended set of courses, known as MassCore, as the system’s graduation requirements. Instead, the group is pushing for a streamlined version of those standards, which it is calling BPSCore.

Even then, the working group noted, the School Department has a big job ahead in ensuring the smaller set of courses is of consistently high quality.

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“The existing 1,900 courses are not organized or understood with respect to any form of criteria that helps understand the level of rigor,” the review said. “Without a clear and ongoing process for course catalogue changes, achieving academic rigor through establishing a ‘BPSCore’ that is preparing students for postsecondary success will have no meaning.”

The state created MassCore in 2007 in response to concerns that students were unprepared for college. The program of study reflects the admission requirements for the state’s public colleges and include four years of English and math, three years of science and social studies, two years of world language, one year in the arts, four years of physical education, and five electives. The content of the courses should align with state academic standards for those subjects.

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By contrast, BPSCore would be largely limited to the English, math, science, and social studies requirement. The review found that graduation standards at most of the city’s high schools are in sync with the scaled-down version of courses, although the quality and content of those courses may not be up to state standards.

It’s not clear if BPSCore would incorporate other elements of the school system’s current policy on graduation requirements, which also calls for coursework in physical education, the arts, health, and computers.

Interim Superintendent Laura Perille, who will step down from her post on June 30, called for the review in March after a growing number of reports raised questions about the quality of most Boston high schools.

The review, presented at Wednesday’s School Committee meeting, includes some of the most concrete steps developed in recent years to uniformly boost the quality of the city’s high schools and potentially provides incoming superintendent Brenda Cassellius a starting point for high school reform.

Among the working group’s recommendations: conducting an across-the-board audit of all high school courses with an eye toward creating a plan to boost rigor and simplify offerings, providing teachers with more training and resources to bolster the quality of their courses, and embarking on a separate review of programs in the lower grades to make sure students have a strong academic foundation.

Perille told the School Committee the review demonstrates the unique challenges the school system faces if it wants to pursue MassCore.

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“What seems like a straightforward answer on the MassCore program of study was built around the vast majority of districts in the Commonwealth, which tend to have one or two high schools,” she said. “It was never done across 33 high schools that meet an incredible diversity of student need. I want to make sure that is repeated loud and clear for any stakeholders, any opinion leaders, anyone who thinks this is a simple or quick answer.”

She added, “If you only have one high school and declare a course of certain rigor . . . then, bingo, you met MassCore.”

Paul Reville, who chaired the state Board of Education when it adopted MassCore, expressed disappointment that Boston would be maintaining a graduation standard lower than MassCore.

“You run the risk of diluting the importance and value of the diploma,” he said.

He questioned why a district as large as Boston would lack the wherewithal to embrace MassCore. Across the state, 81 percent of public high school graduates in 2018 completed the MassCore requirements, compared to just 31 percent in Boston, according to state data.

Adopting the state’s recommended MassCore graduation requirements has been debated off and on in Boston for more than a decade. The discussion took on greater urgency in March after a report by the Boston Opportunity Agenda, a partnership between local schools and nonprofits, found that Boston high school graduates who completed MassCore had far better odds of earning a post-secondary degree than those who did not.

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Any changes to the school system’s baseline requirements for earning a diploma would require School Committee approval. The board last revised its requirements about a decade ago, and they currently fall short in one notable area, calling for only three years of math instead of four. However, the School Department in recent years has been encouraging high schools, which can independently raise their graduation standards above the baseline, to add a fourth year of math.

The working group, while deciding against a wholesale adoption of MassCore, did encourage the school system to make that program of study as widely available as possible on a voluntary basis, noting that full adoption of MassCore would also be expensive, especially in providing the requisite five electives.

The proposed BPSCore has generated some skepticism among teachers.

“BPSCore? Why do we have to be less than?” a teacher tweeted during the presentation. “BPS Core sounds like a cost-saving measure, nothing I would want for my child.”

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, expressed concern Thursday “about any ‘core’ that does not ensure full access to opportunities students need to be college and career ready, and that does not explicitly include foreign language, arts, and music.”

“We would welcome the opportunity for those most impacted, including high school educators, to have a voice in any decision made,” she said, noting no teachers were part of the working group. “And, of course, the funding to make any comprehensive core a reality will require a change in the state’s funding formula that does not exclude the very real needs of Boston public school students.”

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But Kristin McSwain, executive director of the Opportunity Agenda, said she believed the recommendations for BPSCore along with increasing course rigor and teacher training were steps in the right direction.

“If we want to see really substantive changes in school, investing in the professional development of teachers is one way to make that happen,” she said.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com.