State pressing pause on school accountability

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BOSTON (SHNS) – Education Commissioner Jeff Riley intends to waive accountability determinations for districts and schools based on this year’s MCAS exam, according to a senior department official who sought on Wednesday to assuage skeptics worried that the test results after a year of disrupted learning could be used against schools.

Associate Education Commissioner Robert Curtin, with the department’s Center for District Support, said the results of the MCAS exams being administered this spring would be published, but would not be used to compare the performances of schools or tag schools and districts as underperforming and in need of support services.

“It just wouldn’t be right to run the accountability system in the way we have run it previously in this school year,” said Curtin, who said the test results would instead be used for “diagnostic and information purposes.”

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted last month to allow juniors to graduate in 2022 without having passed the 10th grade English and math exams. At that time, Riley also presented a plan that would give him the authority to refrain from performing new accountability determinations for the 2020-2021 school year.

The proposed regulation is currently out for public comment and is expected to be voted on by the DESE board at its June 22 meeting. Curtin presented the plan on Wednesday to the School and District Accountability and Assistance Advisory Council for feedback.

“Yes, we know that schools need assistance throughout this pandemic We don’t need an accountability system to tell us that,” Curtin said.

The state applied for and received a waiver from the federal government from district and school accountability requirements, and with the changes in regulations at the state level would be able to continue to provide assistance and allocate federal funds to schools in need of support based on their 2019-2020 determination.

Ron Sanborn, an elementary school principal in Marlborough, said there has been “significant concern and skepticism” among teachers, students and others with respect to accountability determinations this year and how the department would approach it.

Curtin said it was “unfortunate” that there exists a “level of distrust,” but said it was “very much our intention” to waive determinations for this past school year.

“This is very much the culmination of the direction both I and the commissioner have wanted to take throughout the year,” Curtin said.

The department will publish the results of this spring’s MCAS exam, differentiating between students who took the test in-person or remotely, and Curtin said it has not yet been decided how to do accountability next year.

Arlington School Committee member Paul Schlichtman said, “We’re all flying blind now.”

“Some kids did extraordinarily well with remote and some didn’t,” Schlichtman said. “It will be interesting to be able to tie results that we’re used to playing with with this additional data of what their circumstances were moving through the pandemic.”

Dan Anderson, associate commissioner in charge of system supports at DESE, said all schools and districts previously identified as in need of support prior to the pandemic will continue to be eligible for applicable services.

Schlichtman questioned whether districts can self-identify as being in need of assistance, given the challenges of the past year and the fact that the accountability data available is “stale.”

Anderson said some support services are set aside for underperforming schools and districts identified through the accountability system, but he said the department has also set up teams to help all school system navigate pandemic related challenges.

“We will never not pick up the phone,” he said.

The advisory council also had a discussion about the department’s initiative to find more ways to incorporate student voices and their lived experiences into the policy-making process at the school, district and DESE levels.

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