Public Policy Updates: April 2019 Board of Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met for its regular April meeting on Tuesday, April 23 at Newton North High School. Every year, the Board has one meeting at the school of their student member; this year, that is Maya Mathews, a senior at Newton North High School.

The agenda of the meeting can be found online here; a video of the meeting is here.  


New Chair Katherine Craven opened the meeting by speaking a bit about her priorities as Board Chair: she prizes efficiency and inter-agency coordination. She said that she has heard from superintendents that they appreciate the "warm hand" of the Commissioner in their districts, and she would like to see the Department be a resource for districts. She knows personally of the importance of special education, and she knows that parents have thoughts on that. She said that she plans a retreat this fall on closing achievement gaps and the accountability system. She also plans to "take the show on the road," as they had with this meeting, speaking particularly of visiting Holyoke and Revere.

Public testimony largely focused on the pulled MCAS question. Mass Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy called for an end to the "MCAS gag rule," which bars teachers and students from discussing the exam questions; she said results are skewed as a result of the test question, and called for the results of the full exam this year to be held harmless. A Bay Path student spoke of his experience in taking the MCAS with this question, saying "working on the rest of the test was impossible" after that question. His mother said that she was in disbelief; "we're llving in tough times," she said,"and having this happen made me wonder what's next?" Citizens for Public Schools Executive Director Lisa Guisbond said "even passing reminders that someone belongs to one group or another...can wreck havoc with test performance" and agreed that students should be held harmless on the exam. AFT-MA President Beth Kontos asked that all questions of the MCAS every year be released so they can be reviewed by teachers and students, "so we can help inform you." NAACP New England Council President Juan Cofield asked that the MCAS not be scored, as the question put students at risk of doing less well. 
After the close of public comment, Commissioner Jeffrey Riley spoke of the MCAS testing question. After the Department was contacted by the Boston superintendent relating the concerns from several of her schools, he reviewed the question and made the decision to pull it. He noted that the question had been reviewed three times by the sensitivity and bias committee prior to it being added to the exam. He has been assured by the test creators that the test remains "sound, valid, and reliable," but the Department is also have a full outside review of results done by Standford University to ensure that there are no impacts overall. He said that he is looking to see how the Department can learn from this in the future,  and he plans to meet with the students who raised the concern. "We're an education organization and we learn every day," he said.
Member Mary Ann Stewart asked what the Board's authorities are around the MCAS. Consulting with Commissioner Riley, Chair Craven spoke of waiting for the results of the review before moving forward with such questions. Member Margaret McKenna noted the direction of alternative assessments being worked towards in social studies and history, further noting that in the end, DESE is responsible for this. New Member Matthew Hills said that the Board and Commissioner are both doing what they should at this point, commenting, "I wouldn't get out ahead of ourselves." Member Maya Mathews asked when the results of such a review would be available; she was told early summer. Member Michael Moriarty said, "let's be honest about this; we're talking about this because it got some headlines," commenting that the requests being made in public comment went far beyond the scope of the question. Commissioner Riley said it was important to be thoughtful about this.

 The State Student Advisory Council provided an update on the Global Outreach Workgroup. Along with other work, the Workgroup plans to provide feedback on the Foreign Language Education Framework. They want to further the teaching of languages and involve more students in world languages and cultures. They believe the standards currently are too loose. Ultimately, they would like to see foreign languages instituted at fourth grade, but first need to establish a baseline of requiring at least two years' credit of a language for high school graduation. They plan to work with the Legislature on a bill to that end. 
There will be a full annual report of the State Student Advisory Council at the June meeting of the Board of Education.

The Board next was updated on the state budget process, as the House Ways and Means budget has been released since their last meeting. Much of this was framed in terms of the "goal rates" set in the Governor's school funding bill (H.70); in benefits and fixed charges, in economically disadvantaged rates, and in out-of-district special education, the House Ways and Means budget closes one-sixth of the gap towards the goal, as the Governor's budget closed one-seventh of the gap. The House Ways and Means budget also adds back in English learners that had been dropped in the Governor's budget due to their ACCESS scores. The House Ways and Means budget also increases the minimum per pupil assistance to $30/pupil. The Special Education circuit breaker is increased by $9.5M over the FY19 level. The charter school reimbursement follows the Governor's proposal of shifting to 100/60/40 while reimbursement will go to districts with enrollment above the highest level in five years. Regional transportation reimbursements are estimated by the Department to be at 78-79% with the funding in House Ways and Means; homeless student transportation estimated at 36-37%; and non-resident vocational transportation is not funded. The House Ways and Means budget does not include the Governor's proposed funds for particularly projects, but did include a $16.5M line, of which $6M would be grants for academic needs in districts with a high percentage of low income students, and $10.5M for transitional aid to districts still needing mitigation from the shift to economically disadvantaged.

The Board was then updated on the Individualized Education Program Improvement Project. Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnson opened the report saying "We shouldn't be talking about forms; we should be talking about children." The Department received the results of an outside review in December (December update here); they will be focused on improving the process in advance of improving documentation. This will be a process to be driven by student needs and student strengths. There is a detailed communication plan and opportunities for stakeholder engagement; the Department already is seeking feedback at They will be updating all documentation, including "Is Special Education the Right Service?" and the parents' guide. This will be launched as a small pilot in the fall (not at the beginning of the school year). The emphasis is on finding reliable assessment data shwoing a student's strengths and weaknesses, and then working on finding supports for the right solutions. Family engagement is part of what makes IEPs work best; the Department will be looking to the use of the state's part of IDEA in funding this work at the state level. 

The Board next meets on Tuesday, May 28.