Public Policy Updates: January Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

The regular meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education took place on Tuesday, January 26, 2021, beginning at 9 am. The agenda of the meeting can be found here; the video that is available of the meeting will be online here

Unfortunately, much of public testimony, as well as other parts of the meeting, were not available to those not physically present at the meeting, as the livestream did not always have sound available; the final two reports at the meeting were not livestreamed at all. What follows is what was available at publication, and this will be updated should video of the remainder become available.

Among the testimony shared was concern for the continuation of ACCESS testing under pandemic conditions. When asked by parents why this testing is going forward, a teacher said, “I really have no sensible answer,” calling it “a poor allocation of our resources.” He said, “You keep asking us to make it worth it, but is it worth it?” and proposed the Board find other ways of determining how students are doing without ACCESS or MCAS.

Testimony was offered from several people regarding regional vocational admission. Relating some of his own family story, Taunton Superintendent John Cabral noted the importance of educational opportunity for students. The current admission process denies some students access to vocational schools, access that once denied rarely is regained, unlike in the comprehensive schools, where admission is available to students who may wish to transfer. He said it should “not be a one time opportunity or a decision made by a 13 year old in eighth grade.” This process as is “leaves comprehensive schools at the mercy of regional vocational schools.”
Juan Cofield of the New England NAACP spoke in support of changes to the regional vocational schools’ admissions policies, noting the “dramatic underrepresentation” of students of color in regional vocational schools. Citing both the state constitution and the 14th amendment, Cofield called for open enrollment in regional vocational schools, saying admission should be “a function of capacity.” He said, this “exclusionary admission policy practice is just simply illegal and it discrimates against protected classes…it is blatant race-based discrimination.”
Kevin Murray of Mass Advocates for Children said the current admission policy “has turned these schools into another form of selective admission schools.” Noting that the Commissioner has worked with some schools to attempt to have them make voluntary changes without success, he called on the Board to make such changes themselves.

A current substitute teacher endorsed the Department’s work towards further equity in teacher certification, speaking of her own experience of taking the MTEL 20 times unsuccessfully. She noted that she has worked with successful teachers whose work she admires who never took the exam. She urged the Board to make this “necessary change” in public education.

Chair Katherine Craven thanked the Board for their recent participation in anti-racism training; they will have a second session in the spring. She announced that she is appointed Member Matt Hills to the Commissioner’s evaluation committee. She also reminded the Board of their work with the Board of Higher Education on evidence-based policymaker, with Member Marty West sharing February 1 as the date of the next meeting on student data sharing. Member Amanda Fernández said that the committee on teacher diversity met last month and will meet again quarterly, with financial support for college students and other new work being explored beyond current work.

Secretary James Peyser reiterated Governor Charlie Baker’s announcement from last week that he intends to fund a first year of the Student Opportunity Act. This is, he noted, in additional to the federal and state pandemic aid funds that have made available already. Peyser said, “[this] “suggests our schools and districts are going to be going into FY22 in pretty good shape.” 

Commissioner Jeffrey Riley then moved on to an update to the Board on COVID-19 related information. There is a modification of state testing this spring, with shorter times and a sampling approach. There will also be no new underperforming or chronically underperforming schools declared this year. DESE has provided for district purchase of air purfiers that have 2 to 3 air exchanges an hour. Pool testing was announced and is in the process of being set up; it is being conducted at no cost to districts for the first six weeks. There is also the rapid antigen test program for symptomatic individuals.
The Department has asked for specific flexibilities from the federal government with regard to accountability: specifically, to defer the requirement to identify comprehensive and targeted support for districts and schools. They await further developments and communication from the Biden administration and appointed Secretary Miguel Cardona. 
There is $800M in federal aid coming to the state, with $733M going to districts directly on a needs-based formula. There is 10% under DESE’s control to ID needs throughout system; of that, $5.6M is being set aside by DESE so all districts and charters are receiving some under a formula grant who otherwise wouldn’t. There is more on this from CFO Bill Bell later on in this report.

Member Matt Hills asked the Commissioner for clarification on the interaction with U.S. Ed: “there was nothing having to do with MCAS in Massachusetts.”RIley said that yes, that was the case; Hills said, “Trust me; I’m not looking for it.”

Member Fernández, citing the testimony that had been offered to them, said that it is reasonable to reconsider ACCESS requirements under the circumstances. The recommendation was to consolidate multiple tests. There were concerns raised over high numbers of children possibly not showing up; the results might be incomplete or invalid. Parents are in many cases still reluctant to send their children into school buildings. She suggested there are other options for determination of competency as was done for seniors with MCAS. It is also a matter of practicality; there are issues of transportation, of technology, and of staffing. Riley said they are awaiting further guidance at the state and federal levels. Member Darlene Lombos said she fully supported the recommendation of Member Fernández to revisit ACCESS and MCAS requirements this year.

Associate Commissioner Rob Curtin then spoke to the Board regarding the proposed modification in the competency determination for the class of 2021. He reminded the Board that last spring they had made modifications for the class of 2020 for ELA and math, and for and science through class of 2023. The Department’s plan had been for administration of the MCAS for the class of 2021 in ELA and math in January for those still missing the competency determination; they were waiting to see what trajectory of virus was coming out of winter break “primarily from a safety concern.” The announcement was made to postpone the exams; the announcement was to postpone as suspending the determination and thus the need for the administration of the exam is under the purview of the Board. He reminded the Board that they do not provide diplomas; that is a local authority, with only the competency determination under state authority. Also, this is not automatic; Curtin noted last year, only 2/3rds of the students remaining earned it.
Member Hills asked, based on history, how many of the students remaining would pass it? Curtin said “not high,” though he did not have the statistic at hand. Hills said that for him, this had no relationship to the larger issue of MCAS.
Member Michael Moriarty said, “these loosening of standards always concern me a great deal.” He said that he doesn’t think it helps students but he “always feel this is taking away from them,” that it lessens the diploma that students then bring to colleges and employers. He suggested that the Department needed to do more for students who will graduate under these circumstances. He said, “I hate anything that loosens this system; I don’t think it’s already strong enough to begin with.” He said, “I am going to vote for this, but I am deeply sorry to do this; I did not come here to lower standards.”
The motion to modify the comptency determination passed.
Curtin then briefly addressed ACCESS testing. The Department has now extended the window out to May 20; the hope is that more students will then be back in buildings, lessening the complications of students being tested. He said, “our intention around the use of the data this year is for diagnostic value,” as ACCESS is at core a diagnostic test. The Department has looked for federal government about accountability, as there is a federal requirement to test, and “unless that changes, this is a federally required test.” The test is also required to exit English learner programs.

The Board then got an update on college access. In a given year, about 70% of graduates attend college; for some groups, it’s much lower. Slide4
For the fall of 2020, the state saw an 11.6% drop in community college, a 7.7% drop in state universities. Slide5
There is also clear data that enrollment directly after high school graduation matters; those who enroll immediately are earning more money in their 30’s than those who wait.
Many students also never make it back into the classroom.
The Department then turned to the class of 2021, current seniors. We know that 90% of those who fill out the FAFSA by March 15 of their senior year eventually make it to college, so it is a good indicator of college plans.  
They then shared this graph: Slide9

There is still time; the window from March 1 to March 15 is key. The Department has been working with districts to share the importance of this. They note that counselors’ plates are full. There is great concern, though, as for “most of those kids, if you don’t complete FAFSA, there’s no college at the end of it.” Also, overall enrollments are down, and for many, “that’s not a gap year; that’s a gap decade.”
Vice Chair James Morton suggested that what was needed was a public relations campaign; Chair Craven suggested doing so through the learning pods some students are in. 
Member Hills said some high schools are “doing much much better work in setting up their graduates for financial success” than others. It was noted that the state data can only get out to graduates in their mid-30’s. Hills asked for clarification of if there is variation, which was confirmed. Hills characterized this as some high schools are doing “a better job” and expressed concern over delayed enrollment.
Student member Jasper Coughlin, noting that he had filled out his own FAFSA earlier this month, said this is something that the Student Advisory is definitely willing to take up, and also suggested a PSA going out from the Department to families. 
Peyser said he thinks there were 121 views of individual student FAFSA reports, with fewer than last year (from EDWIN) when he last checked. He said, “if you don’t have the data, if you don’t know which ones filled it out and which ones haven’t completed it, you can’t do the work to get this done.” He said that previously, there was an urgent sense of data being needed; he is concerned that the urgency is lost.
Member West noted that this was real time data that allowed for intervention.

The Board then received a presentation on teacher diversity efforts, which unfortunately took place while the meeting was offline. Should further information become available, this presentation will be updated.

The Board finally received an update on budget matters from CFO Bill Bell. In addition to the information Secretary Peyser noted earlier regarding the FY22 budget. the new ESSER II grants (that’s $800M in total to state; $733M to districts directly, based on Title I allocations) will be live to apply for in the next week or so. District by district amounts can be found here. The $53M passed by the state before the close of the year will come as $25M in February and $25M in April; there will be an update on the Department’s school finance page soon. 

The Board is next scheduled to meet on Tuesday, February 23.