State ed board members rip slow pace of learning recovery targets 

WITH SCHOOLS ACROSS the state grappling to address the learning loss tied to pandemic-related school closures and disruptions, the state education department is working to set goals for student achievement gains over the coming years. 

As state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley framed it at the start of a presentation to the state board of education on Tuesday, the aim is to set “ambitious yet attainable targets.” 

But where those twin goals intersect is a matter of judgment, with several board members expressing strong reservations about the proposed timeline laid out by state education officials, and one even invoking the “separate but equal” language of the Jim Crow era to criticize the much longer timeline outlined for gains by students who suffered the greatest learning loss. 

Associate Commissioner Rob Curtin outlined goals designed to get students back to the achievement levels in math and English seen in 2019, the last year of state testing before the pandemic. He told the board that learning loss varied significantly among student groups, schools, and districts. Dividing schools in quartiles, he said a quarter of the state’s K-8 schools lost 10 or more scaled points on the English MCAS test between 2019 and 2022. “I can’t emphasize enough how big of a decline that is,” he said, calling the decreases that were seen “unprecedented.” The quartile of schools experiencing the smallest losses, on the other hand, included some that actually saw gains in English and math scores between those years. 

The rubric the education department is proposing using – which would cover goal-setting requirements of both federal law and the recently-passed Student Opportunity Act at the state level – would give schools and student groups in the quartile with the lowest learning loss one year to get back to their 2019 achievement levels. Those in the next quartile would be given two years to get there, while those in the third and fourth quartile would get three and four years, respectively to recover losses sustained during the pandemic. 

“The amount of decline will determine the time to recovery,” Curtin explained. He added that the four-year recovery expectations of those in the lowest quartile are extremely rigorous, given the degree of learning loss they suffered. 

But board members voiced strong concerns that the targets are not nearly ambitious enough for those students who have fallen the furthest behind. 

“I have some real concerns for our kids who have been most affected by the declines in learning acquisition,” said Tricia Canavan, a board member from South Hadley. Referring to the four different timelines set out for learning gain recovery, “the phrase that was in my head was separate but equal,” said Canavan. “I’m not saying this is equivalent to Jim Crow South, but I’m very concerned about having these two parallel tracks for different groups of kids. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that we have to do better.” 

Curtin’s slide presentation to the board used graphics showing airport runways to represent the varying lengths of time proposed for achievement recovery based on how much learning loss a group had experienced. 

Michael Moriarty, a board member from Holyoke, proposed a different metaphor. “Rather than thinking of this with the airline analogy of how long the runway has to be,” he said, maybe what’s needed is “a medical analogy” in which the approach is triage – where resources are focused intently on those with the greatest need. 

Canavan and others pointed to the huge pots of federal relief aid still not spent by districts, urging that the state push for this money to be strategically deployed to fund tutoring and other strategies shown to be effective in remediating learning loss. 

“There’s a whole lot of money that’s just pouring in,” said Matthew Hills, the board vice chair, referring to federal funding. The goals for recovery the department has proposed, he said, are “not going to be success. That’s going to be getting to 2019 levels, which for a whole lot of districts were nothing to write home about.” 

Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, sent Riley and the education board a letter urging the state to revamp the proposed targets. 

“Setting a return to 2019 achievement levels as our goal is an unambitious, backward-looking, ‘return to the status quo’ standard,” he wrote, “particularly given that was a moment in time when Massachusetts had the dubious distinction of having some of the biggest achievement gaps in the country.”   




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