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Mass. school evaluations called ‘unfair’

Institute says state doesn’t account for effects of poverty on test scores

Jule Pattison-Gordon | 8/9/2017, 9:51 a.m.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s system is prone to rank schools based on the resources of the ...
Teachers were excessed from Brighton High School when it entered turnaround status earlier this year. Banner photo

“Growth is measuring progress toward a goal, but the goal is more important,” Kerr told the Banner. “I want political leaders, the state, the government, focused on making sure students are hitting the goal.”

Kerr does not see a low-quality ranking as punitive or potentially endangering to a school’s performance. Schools that are not meeting achievement expectations need more attention and resources directed not only to the school but also to programs in the wider community so as to combat any barriers to success, he said.

“If you think of what can we do as a society, as a government, to give kids that are starting behind as much chance as we can, school is the place that we as a society have kids for the most amount of time with the clearest responsibility,” Kerr said. “What better case is there than investing in early childhood education, in student health, in safe communities, than having an accountability system that says, ‘Look, there’s a level that’s acceptable and a lot of schools aren’t on it’?”

Low achievement is a better indicator of a school population in need of aid than low growth, Kerr said. Smaller levels of growth at a school could mean it hosts well-served students who are continuing to steadily improve, whereas low-achievement means that, regardless of the reason, students are not at the level they are expected to be.

Annissa Essaibi-George, vice chair of the Boston City Council Committee on Education, said that money can be the key to educational improvements, yet too often additional financial support only is provided long enough for a school to pull out of a critically poor-ranking. The improvements may be lost when the funds that supported them are then taken away.

“The biggest problem with any school that goes into turnaround,” Essaibi-George told the Banner, “is that we flood them with cash so they can basically do anything they’d like to pick up their numbers, and once they pick up their numbers, we walk away from them.”

Evaluating the rankings

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, state departments may create their own school accountability measures and submit plans for Department of Education approval. The Fordham Institute evaluated 16 submitted plans, including the one from Massachusetts, on three evaluation measures. While Massachusetts’ system was rated “weak” on fairness to all schools, Fordham marked it as “strong” on the clarity and transparency of its school quality labels and “strong” on encouraging schools to put focus on advancing all students, as opposed to only getting mid-level achievers to clear a certain benchmark while neglecting high-achievers and those who appear to be very far behind. Under Fordham’s assessment, Colorado and Arizona’s ranking systems were declared “strong” in all categories.

According to Essaibi-George, problems of transparency and accuracy still remain. For one, schools are in part evaluated on graduation rates of even those students who transfer out and fail to graduate from a different school.

“[The ranking system] doesn’t look at any of the nuances that may be particular to urban districts,” Essaibi-George said.