Public Policy Updates: September 2021 Board of Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education had their regular September meeting on Tuesday, September 21, 2021. Meeting at 9:30 at 1 Ashburton Place, the Board had a very unstable livestream for much of public comment, resulting in incomplete coverage of that portion here. The agenda of this meeting can be found online here.

There was public comment opposing masking, arguing that children are being denied a “normal childhood,” that “mitigation is no longer necessary,” and that policy must be made on an evaluation of “costs versus benefits.” There was public comment regarding the call for expanded remote learning as an option for families, with particular concern expressed for the health of children too young to receive a vaccine in buildings with insufficient ventilation and spacing. There was also public comment arguing for an adaptive assessment rather than MCAS, arguing “system is not adapting to where the kids are and what they need to learn.”

Member Michael Moriarty requested a report on ventilation systems across districts, which Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said the Department would collect and provide.

Secretary James Peyser spoke of upcoming STEM week, and the early college program.

New student member Eleni Carris Livingston of Wellesley was welcomed by Chair Katherine Craven.

Member James Morton was again elected as vice chair.

Commissioner Riley then reviewed COVID data from both Massachusetts and across the country, giving something of a retrospective of the past number of months. He spoke of the rising rates coming out of the summer and the “difficult decision” to require masks for this fall. He noted that vaccine rates vary widely across the state, singling out Chelsea for having 81% of those 16-19 vaccinated. Remote schooling continues to be allowed for students who have home and hospital recognition. The state has been, the Commissioner said, “one of the first penguins out of the gate” on the test and stay program. There are 173 members of the National Guard providing transportation support “especially for special education students” across the state; so far, they are in eight communities but there are more to come. The Commissioner said “with local control we were undermined by a few factors” on going back at three feet last year; he then listed off a number of factors including the MCAS scores and the mental health of students that he felt were negatively impacted by the lack of in-person schooling last year.

Member Paymon Rouhanifard argued that we do not need younger children to be vaccinated in order to lift health requirements in schools.

Member Livingstone noted that students are coping with the distress and difficulties of adults in their lives; she said that support must be provided for families and for school staff in order for students to be supported.

Member Mary Ann Stewart, citing this Cognoscenti piece from Boston teacher Neema Avashia, said that schools need time to heal this year. We can’t assume, she said, that we can come back to “some sort of normal.”
Vice Chair Morton, noting the disparate impact the pandemic has had on Black and brown children, said, “while I want to be optimistic, I want to be cautious.” He said he was concerned by the two very different perspectives shown in public comment, that the way in which low income and Black and brown communities have been and continue to be impacted by the pandemic are different.

Moriarty noted his concern over high needs special education students, fearing they had “fallen down a hole” during the pandemic, wondering about the need for compensatory services since March 2020, particularly for those who have turned 22 during this time.

The Board then received a report on 2021 MCAS results; you can find the presentation here. Noting that the state extended the testing period, shortened the test for grades 3-8, and provided for remote administration, Chief Officer of Data, Assessment, and Accountability Rob Curtin praised the work and flexibility of districts. The state administered over a million tests, of which 85% were in person, of which 99% received a valid result. There are a small number of classroom results being reviewed, and the 8th grade remote science assessment was not scored due to contractor error.

Participation rates were not as high as in other years, but were signficant, as seen below:

2021 participation

There were pockets of non-participation across the state that were higher.

Moriarty asked if the low rate of 10th grade participation in math bodes ill for a future dropout rate. Curtin said that isn’t yet clear, and said that those students will be given multiple chances to take and pass the assessment.

The Board then moved to the performance data, as follows:

2021 ela

In addition to the performance levels of each grade, note that the blue line in each bar represents the 2019 Meeting and Exceeding Expectations levels for an easy comparison with the last time the MCAS was given. The orange above the bar is the gap with past performance.

Note, thus, that the 10th graders taking ELA last year in fact outperformed their 2019 cohort.

2021 math

Overall, the drops in math are more significant than those in ELA.

2021 science

The drop in science is similar to that of ELA rather than math.

That yields changes as follows:

2021 gap 2019

What was most surprising about the results of the 2021 MCAS is that despite ongoing concern that the achievement gap would expand or even “explode,” at least within the results here, the racial and ethnicity gap did not, in some cases, even narrowing, as seen below:

2021 achievement gap

As was noted at the meeting, this bears further investigation.

Riley said that he sees recovery as a multiple year project.

Morton asked what social emotional impact the pandemic has had on students, saying”if we could get such data, that would be helpful.”

Riley said, “I don’t think there is such data.”

Morton responded, “then maybe there should be.” He said the Board should focus on alternative assessments, saying, “I’d like us to be sure that we’re spending the same amount of resources on alternative assessments.”

The Board then recessed for some time, due to the building being evacuated due to a fire alarm.

When they returned, Member Matt Hills said that he wished to speak to something not particular to MCAS for which there was “no perfect place on the agenda.” Noting that he had not reviewed district data, he expressed ongoing and increasing concern over the MOU with the Boston Public Schools. He noted what he called “systemic and systematic and structural problems” in Boston Public Schools, saying he is “more skeptical now than I was a year and a half ago” about the role of the Department in Boston. He said he did not know how the Commissioner would address deep and wide issues “without considering all options including receivership.” He said he was “beginning to feel complicit,” as”not another day that goes by without another Boston Globe article that…amps my skepticism up a notch…I just want to raise this issue publicly, not just privately.”

Observing that this did not appear on the agenda, the Commissioner said that he heard his concerns, and noted “there is a process.”

The Board after a brief deliberation then voted to extend the interim competency determination of MCAS as a graduation requirement to the classes of 2024 and 2025, with the intent that the Department will come back to the Board with a new level for the class of 2026, having completed postponed work on this.

The Board also voted unanimously in favor of Vice Chair Morton’s report on raising the Commissioner’s salary, as follows:

…a 2.5% increase for FY2021 (effective July 5, 2020), a 2% increase for FY2022 (effective July 4, 2021), and a one-time payment equivalent to 1.5% of the salary, to be calculated after the FY2021 and FY2022 increases.”

The Board then adjourned. The Board next meets Tuesday, October 19.