Delay and Revise MA ESSA Plan to Help, Not Harm, Struggling Schools

We are disappointed that Commissioner Chester is largely sticking with an accountability system that is not working. Once again, the state has heard from practitioners and disregarded what they said.

The commissioner says the department will “ensure the validity and reliability of our accountability index.” But this index, which ranks schools against one another, has never been a valid measure of school quality. This is shown by the fact that, for non-selective schools, there is such a high correlation between a school’s demographics and its rank. The result is that many schools serving the most needy students, such as newly arrived English learners, are stigmatized and punished. You can in fact predict a school’s rating with considerable accuracy without ever setting foot inside.

If the Commissioner intends to change that, there is no hint in the plan before you.

But we don’t know what he intends, because the plan doesn’t say how much weight he wants to give to the various metrics. Since it is not due until the fall, it would seem reasonable to wait until there is a real plan before submitting.

The Commissioner says, “A key purpose of an accountability system is to identify the schools and districts that need the most assistance to bring their students up to the state’s academic expectations.”

That sounds good, but the state does not say, “schools that need the most assistance.” It says, “low-performing.”

The best school in the state will be rated “low-performing” if its students don’t speak English. For example, in 2014 the Dearborn School in Boston had average English language growth scores and excellent math growth scores — better than 94 percent of Massachusetts middle schools. Yet it was labeled “low-performing” and threatened with state takeover.

The Dearborn did need extra “support” because it had students who had little or no formal education before they arrived in the US. They did not need chaotic upheaval at their successful school.

We see no sign that the Commissioner plans to change this destructive approach.

ESSA returns control over assessing school quality to the state because Congress recognized that the federal government under Sec. Duncan bungled the job. This new plan continues the old, failed policies, and will result in more harm to our children.

On the related issue of state testing, I thought you should know that some teachers are being given these instructions for handling students whose parents have chosen to opt them out:

“When a student opts out they will remain in the classroom, listen as the test directions are being read and given the test. If after 15 minutes the student doesn’t write anything down, then, and only then, may the teacher remove the test.”

A 4th grade teacher shared her reaction:

“This is public shaming, will cause emotional harm, and is a travesty to the precious relationship between teachers and students. Remember we cannot say anything except the scripted words on the test document or we are threatened with job termination, legal and or criminal action.

“So we have a fourth grader embarrassed and crying and a teacher who could lose his or her job for consoling the child. The teacher must ignore this child in need and say nothing.”

I trust that these instructions are in error, and that your humane instructions from last year, Commissioner Chester, that students should not be pressured or punished for opting out, remain in place. I urge you to communicate this to the field.