BOSTON (SHNS) – A state education department proposal to set new targets for school districts as they recover from the COVID-19 pandemic is being met with criticism from the state’s education board.

The department is reassessing its existing target-setting methodology “to map out a concrete path to recovery for Massachusetts’ districts and schools” after MCAS scores from this year show continued student learning loss from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the proposal puts districts and student groups on different timelines for that recovery — with students affected most by pandemic learning losses taking up to four years before they return to their 2019 achievement levels and can start striving for targets on the “path forward.”

With MCAS scores showing disparate levels of learning loss in districts across the state, the department “needed to think about an alternative way” to set target goals for educators that reflect their specific students’ needs, DESE chief officer for data, assessment and accountability Rob Curtin said at an education board meeting last week.

“The pandemic has created a couple of challenges that have … brought this process sort of outside the usual norms of what we would normally do,” Curtin said in a presentation to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education last Tuesday.

The proposed target system would break up districts and student groups into quartiles based on student achievement. Groups in the bottom bucket would have experienced the largest declines in achievement indicators like MCAS scores.

Each district or student group would be put on a “path to recovery” — which Curtin and the department define in this model as students reaching or exceeding their 2019 scaled MCAS scores. After they’ve reached this target, districts would then move to a “path forward,” focused on continuing to set ambitious, rigorous goals for students with a focus on closing achievement gaps between different demographics of students.

“Groups that are in the bottom quartiles, those that had the largest declines, would have the longest timelines to reach those recovery targets. And those with the smaller declines would have a short amount of time to get to the recovery point,” Curtin said.

The “path to recovery” for the bottom quartile student group could be up to four years long to get these students back to where scores were in 2019.

Curtin said historically lower performing schools are not necessarily in this bottom quartile. The bottom 25 percent is made up of districts and student groups that saw the most decline in MCAS scores from 2019 to 2022, so some historically higher performing schools that experienced decline in these accountability measures would be put on a longer path to recovery.

The multiple pathways are intended to meet students and schools “where they are,” he said.

“Our approach here is to be able to show, again, care to where districts are and the impact that the individual schools had in their experience during the pandemic,” Curtin said. “Simply saying everybody needs to get back to where they were in 2019 in a consistent amount of time simply doesn’t work given the wide variance that we saw across the pandemic.”

If students who fell behind are put on a “path to recovery” that will take four years, education board member Tricia Canavan said, it will be 2027 by the time these students get back to “full recovery,” while some of their peers will have moved on to the “forward” pathway already.

“Listening to your comments,” she said of Curtin’s presentation, “the phrase that was in my head was separate but equal.”

“I realize that’s a pretty controversial thing to say, I’m not saying that this is equivalent to Jim Crow south, but I am very concerned about having these two parallel tracks for different groups of kids,” Canavan said. “I’m concerned about the equity impacts, I think that we have lived through exceptional times and exceptional measures have been called for. I believe that everybody has the best of intentions and best care for our students in mind here, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I think we have to do better.”

She added, and other members echoed, that 2019 “can’t be the goal” when there were significant education achievement gaps that year.

“Why build into the target-setting process recovery to 2019 levels at all? There’s nothing magical about where we were in 2019, and we had significant efforts under way to try to change where those achievement levels were,” board member Martin West said.

With unprecedented funds going into the Massachusetts public education system from federal pandemic relief and the Student Opportunity Act — which specifically calls for funds to be used to lift up historically high needs students and districts — Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education Executive Director Ed Lambert said he felt the proposed targets don’t fulfill the law’s requirements.

“We believe that what DESE has proposed is not what the law requires — rather than a focus on closing achievement gaps, they’re proposing targets to try to bring us back to 2019 levels, a year that was not terrific in terms of the size of these gaps,” Lambert said.

He added that the state should “immediately” get to the business of closing education gaps the Student Opportunity Act is designed to address, by being “urgent and ambitious.”

In his presentation to the board, Curtin said the state’s targets should be “ambitious but achievable.” Former Secretary of Education James Peyser, who at the time of the meeting was still acting as secretary, echoed that the expectations must be achievable.

“I don’t disagree with you that anytime you draw a line, right on one side of the line gets one treatment and right on the other side of the line gets another treatment,” Curtin said to concerned board members. “But in an effort to try to think about how to divide these up, we felt like that at some points you have to draw some lines.”

He added that schooling would be more rigorous for all students than it would have been using previous target methodology, including for the students in the bottom quartile.

Curtin will return to the board in a meeting later this month, and may have an updated proposal at that time. But the department does not need a board vote to move forward with the targets, which they are hoping to get to schools as soon as possible.

Education reform in the 1990s made accountability a key component of statewide education policy and funding, using the MCAS scores as a tool to judge how schools are meeting expectations in student achievement.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to set targets at the state, district, school and student-group level for the purposes of annual accountability reporting. Similarly, under state law, the state’s education commissioner must establish statewide targets to address disparities in achievement among student subgroups and districts must set their own similar targets.

MCAS scores aren’t the only indicator of accountability, the department also considers grade-level completion and attendance data, participation in advanced coursework and other gauges of school climate, diversity and performance, but the scores are one of the most referenced metrics for a school district’s performance.

The proposed accountability targets for 2023 and beyond that would fulfill the requirements of both the SOA and ESSA, Curtin said.