Public Policy Updates: September Board of Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education held their regular monthly meeting in Malden. The meeting agenda can be found here. A video of the meeting is available here

Prior to the meeting, two new members of the Board were sworn in: Amanda Fernandez, who replaces Penny Noyce, and Martin West, who replaces Roland Fryer. James Morton was also sworn in for a second term. Fernandez is the founder and CEO of Latinos for Education. West is on the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education


Chair Paul Sagan participated in the meeting remotely via video from Budapest; the meeting was chaired by Vice Chair James Morton.

Sagan opened the meeting by reading a lengthy statement regarding the concerns raised regarding his donations to Families for Excellent Schools, which earlier this month paid the largest fine in Massachusetts history for failing to disclose its donors during last year's ballot campaign on charter schools. He vigorously defended his right to make those donations, placing the responsibility for disclosure on FES and relaying that, while he had considered publicly disclosing all donations, he felt it would be taken as using his position to advocate in favor of the ballot question if he did so. 

Acting Commissioner Wulfson spoke of the Department's readiness to welcome students taking refuge from hurricane recovery, most recently in Puerto Rico, commenting that due to the close connections between parts of Massachusetts and Puerto Rico, the Department expected that we would see students arriving in the state. Member Michael Moriarty echoed this concern, speaking of the situation as "an escalating humanitarian crisis."

Wulfson also announced that two groups have been invited to submit full applications for new charter schools: Lynn Equity Lab and Phoenix Lawrence. The full schedule of Board consideration of charter authorization, renewal, and amendment may be found online here

There were several members of the public who expressed concern over the lack of programming for gfited students. The newly merged single principals' association the Massachusetts School Administrators' Association spoke of their merger. The new Executive Director of the Massachusetts Public Charter Schools Association Tim Nicolette introduced himself. 

Sagan then updated the Board on the search for a new Commissioner. After reviewing responses to a RFP, he chose Korn Ferry to assist the Board in the search; specifically, the Board will be working with Rosa-Lyn Morris, who was a Teach for America member in Atlanta, partnered with the National Council for Teacher Quality, and now specializes in education searches. Sagan said that she would be soliciting input from Board members through individual interviews and more broadly from the field in creating a job description. Sagan plans to appoint a preliminary screening committee to meet and interview in executive session. Member Mary Ann Stewart expressed surprise that the hiring of a search firm had already been done without Board consultation and asked for more information on what the Board's role would be; Sagan directed her to the staff with questions. The intent is to have a job description by the October meeting.

The Board then heard the presentation postponed from June on the Safe Schools program for LGBTQ students. There is substantial information on the program posted here, with important principles shared here. Roger Bourgeois, former superintendent of the Greater Lowell Regional Vocational Technical High School, spoke of his son's experience; his son always spoke of himself as "broken and couldn't be fixed." While his son has gone on to become a nurse, Bourgeois introduced the Safe Schools program as one that worked to ensure students did not see themselves or others as broken and unable to be fixed. A number of trans students spoke of their own experiences, of depression and suicide attempts, of bullying in school, of the importance of supportive staff and students, and of the need for greater and earlier education in LGBTQ issues and specifically in gender identity. Member Mary Ann Stewart related this to the need for an update on the health standards, which have not been updated since 1999; Acting Commissioner Wulfson agreed, stating that such an update would be coming soon.

 The state's plan for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act was accepted by the federal Department of Education on September 22. The Board heard a update on the plan as accepted. There were two changes made within the accountability section since the last update. First, every school will receive a scaled score that not only represents where they are relative to like schools, but also where schools fall within the proficiency range of scores. Thus, if a school does quite well relative to others but not as well in absolute terms, both pieces of information will be represented in the score. Second, schools that do not enroll enough students to meet minimum group size will not receive an "insufficient data" determination, but instead with have testing data combined over years until the minimum group size is met. The Board was also reminded of several conditions true of this year alone: the Department largely will not be assigning levels to schools taking the new MCAS. Schools that are in Level 4 or 5 will remain there for this year; grade 3-8 schools with student participation rates below 90% will be assigned Level 3, as will those serving a combination of grades 3-8 and 7-12 with persistently low graduation rates. High schools, which remain with the legacy MCAS, will receive accountability levels as per previous; they may still be declared underperforming. Overall, 2017 will serve as a baseline year under the new test. 

The Board then heard an update on the MCAS. Test results will be released in mid-October. This year's MCAS saw participation rates of over 97% across the board, with most grades seeing over 99% participation. 60% of students in grades 3-8 took the new test on computers. Acting Commissioner Wulfson spoke of the learning curve of doing so; the deparment has heard from districts that students had a greater degree of comfort with taking the test online after prior years. This summer, teachers met to set the standards for responses to test questions; grade level teachers determined what responses met expectations, exceeded them, or didn't meet them, and assigned point levels. Groups of teachers then met to ensure coherence across grade levels. While actual results have not been released, this work creates a projection of results that show about half of students achieving at or above grade level. While this is a bit lower than prior years, it is not far off from the last year all students took the previous test, and the department notes its alignment with Massachusetts NAEP results. In response to a question from Member Amanda Fernandez, Wulfson mentioned that the Department plans to come out with FAQ and other information for use in districts. 

The Board then received an update on the high school exam and competency determination for graduation. The Board voted in favor of the administration's proposal that the classes of 2021 and 2022 be held to an interim competency determination, as they will be the classes transitioning to the new MCAS. Wulfson noted that the class of 2021 is currently in their freshman year, thus the vote was needed now. There followed a brief discussion, in response to a question from Stewart, of other skills and abilities students need and the work being done in other types of assessment, both in other states and within Massachusetts.

The Board then received a brief update on current legislation. The Joint Committee on Education currently has 338 bills before it; they have held nine hearings and have favorably released seventeen bills thus far. Wulfson noted that as an executive agency, the department does not feel it is their role to comment on pending legislation; they do, however, provide support and information to legislators as they are asked. Member Ed Doherty noted the upcoming vote on a constitutional amendment on taxes, suggesting that the Board might, as he believed it had in the past, take a position on this ballot question.

Finally, the Board heard an update on the budget. There remains a request before the administration for an additional $4.1 million for assessment for the new MCAS. The planning for FY19 has also already started.

The Board then adjourned. Their next meeting is Monday and Tuesday, October 23 and 24.