BOSTON (SHNS) – The state’s education board seems to have changed its tune on an education department proposal to set new targets for school districts as they recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this month board members and education advocates spoke out against a reassessment of the state’s target-setting methodology to help put schools on a path to recovery after MCAS scores showed continued student learning loss from the pandemic.

Over 90 percent of Massachusetts schools are hitting achievement targets below where they were in 2019, according to DESE chief officer for data, assessment, and accountability Rob Curtin.

The department’s plan is to put districts and student groups on different paths to “recovery” (defined by the state as returning to or exceeding 2019 scores on the MCAS exam) with the students who experienced the most learning loss taking up to four years before they can begin striving for new targets on a “path forward.”

These targets are both a legal requirement for federal and state funds, and metric school districts use to gauge student achievement.

Board members said at a meeting in early January they were concerned that student groups who are already struggling would be put further behind their peers if they had a long road to get back on track, while other students were put on the path forward more quickly. They also questioned using 2019 as a target, a year during which member Martin West said, “we had significant efforts underway to try to change where those achievement levels were.”

The department does not need the board’s approval to move forward with the plan, but Curtin came back to the board Tuesday with compromises and was received with more enthusiasm.

The core of the system is to set “ambitious but achievable” goals, Curtin said.

“If we set overly ambitious targets that we do not believe are attainable, and then tell the public that their schools are not making progress when in reality, they made a good deal of progress — we don’t believe that it serves the public well,” he said.

The plan Curtin brought before the board in early January would have ensured that over 95 percent of schools had targets that would have been more rigorous than the goals used in 2019, Curtin said. After criticism from members, the department is now committing to raising that number to 100 percent, he told the board.

Curtin guaranteed that the expectations the department sets for every school will minimally exceed previous requirements under the old accountability system.

Addressing members’ concerns about bringing schools back to 2019 achievement levels before they go forward, the data officer doubled down on the new system’s varied timeline approach.

“A large percentage of schools experienced achievement losses that were unprecedented… These schools had students that are continuing on in their learning from a deficit perspective as a result of the last three years, and they have new students that will be entering testing grades, who had their formative years of development and reading and math severely impacted,” Curtin said. “A failure to acknowledge this reality while setting targets, in our opinion, does a disservice to those that were most affected.”

Addressing concerns that the new system does not focus on closing achievement gaps between racial and economic groups — especially in light of the state’s Student Opportunity Act, which calls for state funds to be used to lift up historically high-needs students and districts — Curtin said schools need to “meet students where they are academic.”

The Student Opportunity Act is intended to give extra resources to high-needs districts over seven years to close achievement gaps. It is currently in its second year of full funding in the fiscal year 2023 and Gov. Maura Healey has committed to fully funding the law in her fiscal year 2024 budget.

But some, including Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education Executive Director Ed Lambert, said he worries that with some students on a long path to recovery, they won’t get to utilize those funds before they dry up.

“Schools don’t attack achievement gaps by focusing solely on a lowest performing group, or worse, not focusing on a higher performing group,” Curtin said in response to this concern. “Instead, what schools do is they educate all of their students and devote particular focus to students that are academically disadvantaged and try to close the gap between their learning and the learning of other students. Our proposal requires ambitious improvement from all students.”

Superintendents from Revere, Everett, Salem, and Billerica came to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting to support the proposed accountability system.

“I believe wholeheartedly that narrowing of the opportunity gaps will lead to narrowing in the achievement gap, but I believe this will take time, which is what gets accounted for in the commissioner’s accountability plan,” said Everett Superintendent Priya Tahiliani. “When I review the current plan, I see thoughtful leadership, I see ideas that will energize the Everett Public Schools, not belittle or demean us.”

Board member Darlene Lombos said she “fully supports” the proposed system, though she acknowledged that it is designed mainly off MCAS scores which she said is “not designed to look at the student holistically.”

With the recovery path tailored to each district or student group’s specific needs, it allows more time for all the aspects of recovery, including students’ social and emotional well-being, she said. A more ambitious plan to push students academically may ignore other parts of their learning, Lombos said, pointing to the panel of superintendents who spoke earlier in the meeting about student needs.

“It is important that accountability systems be not only aggressive but also achievable and compassionate,” wrote Revere Superintendent Dianne Kelly in a statement to the board.

The department will return to the board for future conversations as the accountability system is rolled out to check in on districts’ progress, Curtin said. When asked by the News Service earlier this month, Curtin said the department hopes to get these targets “in the hands of districts as soon as we can.”