Mass. rating plan deemed unfair to high-poverty schools

Report faults state system for not using ‘growth’ as bigger factor

MASSACHUSETTS GETS A poor grade from a Washington-based policy organization on how its plan to comply with a new federal education law treats schools with high rates of poverty. But a number of education policy thinkers in the state are pushing back against the report and say its message undermines an important pillar of education reform policy aimed at precisely those same schools.

The Fordham Institute report, titled “Rating the Ratings,” looked at the plans submitted to the US Department of Education by 16 states and the District of Columbia and graded them on three measures. Massachusetts scored well on two of them, but tied with Louisiana for the lowest score on a third measure, which asked whether a state’s accountability system was fair to all schools, including those with high rates of poverty.

The report rated the Massachusetts plan for treating all schools fairly as “weak,” the lowest of three ratings, because the state uses achievement levels as the basis for 75 percent of a school’s accountability rating, while measures of student growth count for only 25 percent of the rating. Achievement levels measure how well students score on the state’s standardized math and English tests, while growth scores measure how much progress a student has made from where he or she performed the previous year.

Fordham argues that reliance on achievement scores is not fair because they are highly correlated with poverty rates and with students’ prior achievement. According to this line of reasoning, the scores wind up penalizing schools based on their student population, not on the quality of the school’s instruction or teachers.

States must submit reports this year to the US Department of Education outlining how they plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal law signed by President Obama in December 2015 that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The new law gives states much more leeway in developing accountability systems for schools than the No Child Left Behind law did.

Under No Child Left Behind, which measured schools based on achievement alone, the report says that “nearly every school serving a high proportion of low-income students was eventually designated as failing.” The report says that, while many high-poverty schools are, in fact, not serving students well, “it’s absurd to conclude that that’s the case with nearly all of them.”

The report rated state plans as “strong” if growth measures account for at least 50 percent of a school’s rating, “medium” if growth counts for 33 percent to 50 percent of the rating, and “weak” if it counts for less than 33 percent of the school’s score.

Growth measures should “constitute the majority of summative ratings,” the report says. “[T]he more states focus on growth instead of achievement, the fairer they will be to high-poverty schools.”

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education responded to the report in very measured tones, calling the question of how much weight to give to growth scores “a delicate policy discussion.” In a statement, the department said only that having growth count for 25 percent of a school’s rating “reflects our current practice.”

A number of education policy leaders in the state, however, were critical of the Fordham rating and its premise that greater use of growth scores is a good thing.

Relying heavily on growth measures undermines the basic foundation of the standards-based movement in education, said Jim Stergios, executive director of the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute. The idea “was to say that all kids will have access to the same high-quality curricular materials and schools would be held accountable for raising the bar no matter where they lived or what their background was,” said Stergios. “The use of growth measures creates an educational accountability system that accepts ‘separate but equal’ as a matter of fact – and rewards schools based on the different populations they serve.”

Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said schools need to strive to get all students to a “readiness” benchmark before graduating. “If we make growth too large a factor, we actually could be leaving kids behind by congratulating ourselves for moving a kid from a 3rd grade reading level to a 5th grade level when the child is in 7th grade,” she said.

Liam Kerr, state director of the Massachusetts chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, also said it’s important not to mask struggling schools by overreliance on growth measures.

“If you’re gearing public benchmarks toward areas where absolute achievement is low, you’ll have more political attention and public investment in those areas, which is something all Democrats should agree on,” said Kerr.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Massachusetts got a high rating from Fordham on the other two measures that were evaluated: whether a state’s rating of schools was easy for educators and the public to understand and whether its accountability system encouraged a focus on all students by avoiding the use of a threshold to measure student achievement. A system that only looked at whether students made it over a bar determining basic proficiency, for example, might encourage schools to focus heavily on boosting achievement among students performing just below that level, rather than work to raise achievement levels among all students.

The 17 state plans were submitted to the federal education department to meet a first-round deadline of April of this year. The remaining 34 states must submit plans by September.

  • FrancisMcManus

    It’s not just poverty, it’s ELL and SPED. When you have a density of kids with these designations, MA accountability measures put their schools in the bottom 20% and often into turnaround. Watch this video of students, parents and teachers talking about their experiences in schools in turnaround status https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbErK6rLQAY

    • Mhmjjj2012

      This video features State Senator Patricia Jehlen, Vice-Chair of the Joint Committee on Education who stated: Level 4 & 5 schools are more likely to have a high proportion of low income, minority and ELL students. Like that’s a revelation. Every district with Level 4 or 5 schools spends less than the Foundation Budget requires…the average school district in Massachusetts spends more than the Foundation Budget. Gee whiz, why aren’t those facts widely known?

  • FrancisMcManus

    These so-called education policy leaders have no direct experience with large populations of kids who aren’t scoring well on ELA because they’re learning English for the first time, not since birth.

    BPS 55,843 students

    42% Hispanic 35% Black 14% White 9% Asian <1% Other/multiracial

    45% First language not English
    30% English learners
    20% Students with disabilities (students with an IEP)
    6% English learners with disabilities
    70% Economically disadvantaged (Participating in one or more state administered anti-poverty program)

  • John Breen

    A shell game with empty shells for policy leaders.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    According to the Democrats for Education Reform’s website, it is a political action committee…a PAC… based in New York City and “has sought to use campaign donations to smooth the way for policies such as expanding charter schools.” It seems to me whenever Democrats for Education reform is mentioned in any way, shape or form…those facts should be included to provide context for CommonWealth’s readers just like Michael Jonas called the Pioneer Institute “conservative-leaning.” Of course, conservative leaning was putting it mildly.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    And what’s the story with Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education? In 2010 the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education released a report, “School Funding Reality: A Bargain Not Kept How is the Foundation Budget Working?” stating “Over the 17 years since the Education Reform Act passed, there has been virtually no equalization in spending or state aid between rich districts and poor.” So what’s happened to fix and fully fund the Foundation Budget since that 2010 report was issued? Nothing…absolutely nothing. But Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, isn’t worried that more than 900,000 children in this state are attending underfunded, under resourced public schools. No, that’s not her concern.

  • jeanabeana

    Fordham institute is an extreme, far right source for your information. They are NOT Fordham University but they like to live on the laurels extended to the University. They are similar to Hoover institute and represent an extreme opinion. The MA Business Alliance paid for phony “marketing studies” by Pearson to make fraudulent claims about the tests in order to gain profits for Michael Barber. The former commissioner went around the states telling people to sign up with Michael Barber; this is extreme politics shilling for corporations that want to profit from the public treasury (at the expense of our students).

  • jeanabeana

    https://www.mma.org/broken-charter-school-funding-system-must-be-fixed. school districts, school committees, the League of Women Voters, the MA Municipal Association have facts about the Foundation Budget and recommendations. People who hold these opinions like the DFER should stand back and listen to what the MA Municipal Association is saying — the mayors and the city councils. At the recent democratic convention in Worcester, DFER had a small table manned by 3 persons (who appeared to be in their 20s) probably hired for the day. I went to them and said “I am sorry they are hiring you to do this today; do you know the DFER brings dark money into the state from wealthy plutocrats?”

  • jeanabeana

    Fordham I. is the reason that your children will now be tested on “Grit”… they are using personality measures on the school children. They already did a practice run in Boston with their “grit” measures and they just say “feckless parents have kids with no grit”. The Children’s Hospital in Boston does much better reports and studies on our school students that this political opinion from the Fordham institute (pertelli, “Checkers” Finn etc)

  • jeanabeana

    Fordham I. is also responsible for the terrible reports from Kate Walsh on how bad she thinks the Teachers Colleges and University programs are in the U.S. All of the major univeirsities pointed out the fallacy in Kate Walsh’s so-called reports. Now I have cited at least 3 different reports that Fordham produces that are seriously flawed. Yet, they still have influence; some of it based on the fact that they chose “Fordham” to include in their title (there are many professors at the true Fordham University who would not support fraudulent reports).