Public Policy Updates: September 2023 Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education resumed their school year meeting schedule with a meeting on Tuesday, September 19, 2023 at 9 am in Malden. The agenda can be found online here; video of the meeting can be viewed here.

The Board opened with public comment. Senator Jason Lewis, Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Education, spoke in “strong support” for the proposed revision of the state health and physical education frameworks. Lewis said, “this update is long overdue,” commenting that the Baker administration “did a disservice…by not allowing the revised standards to be released.” Lewis also noted that the Senate has passed The Healthy Youth Act on a bipartisan basis, and hoped that Governor Maura Healey would have the opportunity to sign that bill into law. Rep. Jim O’Day, the lead House sponsor of The Healthy Youth Act, spoke next, saying that he was “truly elated to be here this morning to speak on this topic.” He noted that Worcester, of which he represents a part, changed to a comprehensive health curriculum two years ago, and “to my knowledge, the sky has not fallen in!” Observing the political state of such discussions around the country, he stated, “That is not going to happen in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts!”
Speaking next on a “non-agenda item” per Chair Craven, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu spoke in significant detail of the work of the Boston Public Schools. She commended the work of Boston Superintendent Mary Skipper and her team, citing structures and resources to follow through. She said the work “affirms that serious system-level improvements take time, and that time pays off.”
Massachusetts Teachers Association President Max Page and Vice President Deborah McCarthy spoke next, first speaking of the increased resources to schools due to the passage of the Fair Share amendment; nothing the significant work the MTA put towards its passage, Page said, “On behalf of the MTA, you’re very, very welcome.” Page noted the union’s support for the revised state health and PE standards, commenting that he hoped the reconsideration of a decades-old policy would also apply to the use of high stakes testing. McCarthy, speaking of the ballot initiative to no longer have the MCAS be the competency determination for high school graduation in Massachusetts, spoke of strong support for the initiative, closing by saying it is time “to return joy to our classrooms.”
There was also comment advocating for computer-adaptive testing models and further support for the ballot initiative.
The father of a trans son spoke from the parental perspective, saying “he had to discover who he was, as we all do” and yet “there are people who hate him” for who he is. As a parent, “I know the world isn’t a safe place for him, and I can’t always be there to protect him” but he hoped that the new standards would create a  “more informed and emphatic future generation.”
Several charter school representatives spoke in favor of the revised state health and PE standards, with one calling it “not only valuable but necessary,” and another asking that they be adopted “as an educator, as a mom, and as a person who deeply cares about doing my part to ensure a better tomorrow”. Similarly, there were two speakers associated with Planned Parenthood, who observed that the majority of parents, regardless of their associations or identities, support comprehensive health education for their children. A college student noted the significant gaps in her own and her fellow students’ education, saying, “Massachusetts is a leader in public education…but when it comes to” sex ed, “we are failing.”

Following public comment, there were brief opening remarks from Secretary Patrick Tutwiler, who said he wanted to “lift up” the beginning of the school year,” noting that there “seems to be incredible optimism” in districts. He cited the full funding of the next phase of the Student Opportunity Act, funding for early college, and free universal school meals, saying that the state has an FY24 state budget “that acknowledges that every child deserves an education, yes, but…deserves an education for a future that they so choose.”
Commissioner Jeff Riley said he echoed the strong opening of school sentiment of the Secretary, stressing the importance of free meals for all. He said that the Worcester Cultural Academy Charter School approved by the Board last spring had “fully met its opening requirements” and opened with approximately 135 students; he said he was “encouraged by the collaborative relationship” the school had with the Worcester Public Schools in student transportation. He further noted the growing number of migrant families in the state; districts have a DESE team in support, including in off hours. Thus far DESE is supporting 58 districts. There has been funding and will be more coming out, which will be discussed at the next meeting.

Turning to business, the Board first took up the revised health and physical education standards. Commissioner Riley noted that the current standards date back to 1999. Thanking the large number of people involved in the update, he said the document had “benefited further from public comment.” He reminded the Board that it is up to individual districts to determine implementation, and that parents continue to have the right to opt their children out of the sexual education section, “which is a very small portion” of the frameworks. DESE staff further thanked those involved, briefly discussed the public comment process, and then reviewed the state support for implementation that the Department plans. In Board comment before voting, Member Michael Moriarty again observed that this completed a revision of all state frameworks under Craven’s chair service and his and Stewart’s time on the Board, and urged the Department to continue the revision process.
The new standards passed unanimously.

The Board next turned to a presentation on the history of MCAS and and the impact of the competency determination. Chief Officer for Data, Assessment, and Accountability Rob Curtin spoke of the McDuffy vs. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education & others decision, establishing the state constitutional standards against which reforms were to be judged. McDuffy outlines seven capacities which an educated child must “at least” possess:

(i) sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization;
(ii) sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems to enable students to make informed choices;
(iii) sufficient understanding of governmental processes to enable the student to understand the issues that affect his or her community, state, and nation;
(iv) sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness;
(v) sufficient grounding in the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage;
(vi) sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently; and
(vii) sufficient level of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.’

Curtin highlighted i, iii, and vii as particularly being reflective of the MCAS. He noted that the resulting 1993 Education Reform Act required the establishment of high standards for every student, a statewide assessment system to measure progress, a statewide accountability system to hold schools and districts responsible, the establishment of a new competency determination, and a new state finance system to ensure adequate resources. Curtin observed that development of the MCAS took time, first being given in 1998. Curtin noted that the ordinal rank of Massachusetts on the NAEP (the “Nation’s Report Card”) gives some idea of where the state stood:

early 90's NAEP MA

There have been fits and starts (including both the PARCC and the pandemic), but there has also been progress:

MCAS scores over time

Curtin reminded the Board that this work has meant ongoing conversations with educators “what does it mean to be proficient in the standards,” which is what the MCAS is designed to test, and “knowledge and assessment of skills [have] increased over time in the Commonwealth.” Asked by Craven about “flexibilities baked into the system,” Curtin said that students can take the test up to five times; that there is an appeals process, including portfolio appeals; that there is the EPP process.
He further noted that graduation rates are at “an all time high,” and that the argument made over the years since 1993 that the use of MCAS as the high school competency determination would lead to a decline in graduation rates was “demonstrably false,” with a parallel impact on the dropout rate.

While it is only one data point, Curtin said, it is also “the only consistent measure of student achievement we have” both to identify strengths and areas in which we need to improve. It also provides parents with consistent information across the Commonwealth on how their children are doing. In a 2018 survey it was found that 88% of MA parents reported their children were at or above grade level in ELA and math; in reality about 50% were.
Currently, MCAS is out for new procurement, with some changes anticipated: the planned for grade 5 and 8 science that allows students to ‘do science’ will be in field testing this school year and next, with it becoming operational in FY26. There are plans for high school as well, A civics assessment in grade 8 will be field tested this year, and it becoming operational in FY25. Currently, high school math and science tests are offered in Spanish; moving ahead, it is proposed that this also be offered in grades 3-8, and expand to other languages. It is proposed to improve turnaround times through an increase in automated scoring, and perhaps rolling results being available to parents via an online portal. Currently, the test takes on average 8 hours in grades 3-8, 9 with science; that’s 1% of instructional time. As the majority of that is ELA testing, and the most time is used for essays, a shift to a single essay with multiple response questions, perhaps apart from reading passages.
Student member Ela Gardiner asked about testing anxiety and possible impacts. Member Ericka Fisher raised a concern of inequity of preparation for the “doing of science,” given disparate access to science labs; Curtin said the Department has been “closely attuned to” that and won’t go operational unless they are certain. Craven asked how the Department works through schools to contact parents; Curtin said the Department works to ensure the MCAS report is easily understood “so they’ll get the most truth” out of the results. The Department also works with superintendents about their own talks to parents and other stakeholders.
Vice Chair Matt Hills then presented information regarding the competency determination and its impact, gathered in part from research previously presented to the Board by Professor John Papay of Brown University. Using Departmental data, Hills noted that of the 70,000 students in a graduating class statewide, 96% earn a competency determination; 3% don’t earn the CD but also don’t meet local graduation requirements; 1% meet local requirements but don’t earn the competency determination. Most students pass on their first attempt in grade 10, and nearly all pass on their second or third attempt, by grade 11. Massachusetts is the only state to have solely a test as the requirement, while 49 states have requirements in some fashion; most of those are course and other requirements. Using Papay’s research, Hills went into some detail about the tie Papay has consistently found between MCAS results and future earnings, even as demographics are held steady. Craven summed up the presentation by saying that Massachusetts has chosen to follow the requirement the state constitution puts on the state by assessing implementation rather than by mandating curriculum.

The Board then turned to a presentation on 2023 MCAS and accountability results, now posted in the Department’s School and District Profile page. The Commissioner opened by saying that the achievement slide caused by the pandemic appears to be over; results show either an increase or a maintained number of students meet or exceeding expectations. Curtin said, “the achievement slide since 2019 has halted and recovery is fully underway…[there is] positive momentum” towards recovery. One caution is for grade 3 who were in kindergarten and preschool during the height of the pandemic. In addition to the MCAS scores, the state accountability system is fully operational for the first time since 2019, with all schools receiving an overall accountability classification, plus student group percentiles. This includes criterion referenced percentages towards targets in all indicators (not just in MCAS). Of the state’s 1832 schools with testing grades, 226 are receiving “insufficient data”; of the remaining 1607, 1331 are “not requiring assistance or intervention” (83%), and 275 are “requiring assistance or intervention” (17%), as indicated at the top of the post.

The Board then received an update on the FY24 budget from CFO Bill Bell, who reviewed the major education accounts. Bell note the funding for assistance for extraordinary special education costs for the current year (over and above the reimbursement that is circuit breaker). He also called attention to the increase in rural aid, the funding of transportation accounts at the highest-ever level, as well as the third year of implementation of the Student Opportunity Act. The universal free meals he referred to as effectively the state’s wraparound payment, as it is to cover costs not covered by USDA reimbursement.
Regarding ESSER, he called the Board’s attention to the ending of ESSER II later this month; about 85% of that is claimed. He did note the recent guidance for late liquidation; obligation has to occur on time, but there is 18 months to reconcile. ESSER III which is good until the end of next September, with a current 55% claim rate. Bell noted that these are districts that “mathematically still” have much to be claimed.

The Board voted to increase the Commissioner’s salary in line with other state employees.

The Board voted to amend the student discipline regulations, as previously discussed.

The Board will next meet on Tuesday, October 24.