State officials praise new way of judging schools
By James Vaznis | Globe Staff
February 2, 2010
Massachusetts school officials and education advocates welcomed yesterday President Obama’s proposal for sweeping changes in the way schools are judged on meeting federal standards, hopeful that it will focus attention on schools that need the most help while decreasing the likelihood of labeling good schools as bad.
Under the current system, known as the No Child Left Behind Act, 54 percent of schools in the state have missed annual benchmarks for increases in test scores for at least two years, as schools pursue a federal mandate of having all students score in the proficient range by 2014.
But yesterday, as Obama presented his budget plan to Congress, he proposed replacing that accountability system with a more nuanced way of judging school performance in an effort to identify more clearly those schools that are truly failing their students. Obama also called for a fundamental change in the way the federal government awards education grants, moving away from a formula-based system to one that rewards districts making big strides against poor achievement.
Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the proposed overhaul of the federal education accountability system, which has stalled in recent years, should restore public credibility.
“Right now, under the current federal requirements, a school or school district has met or hasn’t met the standards, and there are no shades of gray,’’ said Chester, who attended a briefing on the proposal two weeks ago in Washington. “It’s a kind of a crude and nonnuanced approach in judging whether schools are being effective.’’
Alarms have been ringing for change the past several years in Massachusetts and other states because the goal of having all students proficient by 2014 appeared to be unattainable. Critics also say the federal system encourages some states to adopt lower standards to meet that goal. The eight-year-old system allows each state to set its own standards.
In Massachusetts, widely recognized as having among the most rigorous academic standards, the number of schools identified as missing benchmarks for test scores last year swelled to 93, a 4 percentage point increase from the previous year. More than a third of those schools were labeled as needing “restructuring,’’ the most egregious designation, which allows the state to take them over.
At the time, Chester said he believed just a few dozen schools were doing so poorly that the state would need to take them over, based on indicators beyond raw test scores. Earlier this month, Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill that bolstered the state’s ability to take over ailing schools.
Obama released few details about the new school accountability system. But the US Department of Education expanded on the proposal somewhat yesterday, posting a budget document that stressed looking beyond raw test scores to include such data as high school graduation rates, the ability of schools to close achievement gaps among various groups of students, and the growth in test scores of individual students from one year to the next.
The new system would also scrap the 2014 proficiency deadline, preferring that states adopt standards under which students graduate from high school ready for college or a career. Schools that make substantial improvement toward the new goals would be rewarded, while those where performance is stagnant or declining would face sanctions, such as state takeovers, according to the budget document.
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the proposed changes in accountability appeared to be a step in the right direction and seemed to mirror changes recently made in Massachusetts. Among the changes, the commissioner now has more discretion in designating schools as underperforming by looking at other data besides test scores.
Massachusetts receives about $1 billion in federal education funding, representing about 8 percent of the money the state and local districts spend annually on education.
Obama’s proposal is being made as his administration works with the National Governors Association and dozens of states, including Massachusetts, to create national education standards. Chester said yesterday that Massachusetts would not adopt those standards if they represented a setback for the state.
Some groups yesterday were taking a wait-and-see approach to Obama’s proposal, which steers clear of using the phrase “No Child Left Behind Act’’ - so named by former president George W. Bush - in favor of the law’s decades-old name, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“It really marks the passing of an era,’’ said Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute. “The push for proficiency may have been unattainable for everyone, but it did get states to move in the right direction.’’