Massachusetts has an education accountability system that has served it well – catapulting our state on many national and international measures to the top in the nation in student achievement. The most recent version was designed in 2008 in collaboration with stakeholders, including MBAE, represented on the initial Accountability and Assistance Advisory Council to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
At its March 28 meeting, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education reviewed the state’s plan to comply with the provisions of the new federal “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA), a law that gives states more leeway in how to measure school success. In comments submitted by MBAE regarding the plan, we urged that any new design of our accountability system must improve upon the past system in ways that clarify or strengthen it, reflect the state’s current needs, and guard against allowing poor performance to be excused or allowed to persist without consequence and intervention.
Our view is the accountability system must have the power to drive change by focusing on priorities that emphasize improvement in student outcomes, direct every school’s focus to key priorities, and set expectations at a level high enough to be meaningful without being unachievable.
MBAE Perspective on the New Accountability Plan
The state’s ESSA plan exhibits a thoughtful and evidence-based approach to school improvement. In specifying the goal of preparing all students for success after high school and closing gaps that currently deprive students of that prospect, it articulates what many assume, but not all accept as the purpose of public education and therefore the primary goal of our accountability system.
We are particularly enthused by the inclusion of strategic resource use as an explicit area of focus since this is a critical tool for districts to assess the impact of their work, leverage improvements and make the case for additional assistance when it is required. We hope the state will make full use of the “implementation of fiscal support teams that provide technical fiscal support assistance, which shall include evaluating fiscal, administrative, and staffing functions, and any other key operational function” authorized by the law.
It is also encouraging that more accessible and transparent data is expected to be available to the public. Additional measures of school and district performance beyond those in the formal accountability system will be included on a public report card issued by the state for each district. It is essential that we base the improvement process on meaningful data and evidence-based interventions, and clearly communicate how schools are performing to families, educators, and communities so they can be involved in the improvement process.
There are still many unanswered questions about the weight and definition of the indicators the state will be using to measure performance. For example, the methodology may not yet be developed for some of the proposed additional measures. We are disappointed that a career ready measure was not included, since there are many emerging tools for assessing that readiness. It is our strong recommendation that career readiness skills – communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, etc. – be included in the proposed social-emotional measures or other general and undefined indicators.
Finally, the original intent of accountability in Massachusetts was not simply to identify the lowest performing schools for targeted support but also to highlight high-performing schools to inform state policy and education practices. Setting high expectations and recognizing exceptional work, particularly in raising achievement for historically underserved students, can guide action for others. We will be watching to see how the state will incorporate this approach in its implementation of this ESSA plan.