DFER-MA testifies against new school performance assessments

On Tuesday, June 24th, DFER-MA sent policy fellow John Griffin to testify against proposed changes to public charter school regulations at the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The proposed policy is projected to eliminate charter school seats in four high-need, urban districts while increasing seats in higher-performing suburbs. The Board unanimously adopted the proposal, but DFER voiced its opposition, bearing testimony to the unjust consequences of the newly-adopted plan.

The new formula calculates the bottom 10% of districts using 75% achievement data—the district’s performance on standardized tests—and 25% growth—the improvements of individual students in that district over time. Previously, the bottom 10% was calculated using 20% growth and 80% achievement data.

That change in percentages might not seem like much, but DFER’s testimony bore witness to its monumental consequences. Several struggling districts will leave the bottom 10%, a status that affords them a higher charter school cap by state legislation, and as a result will lose significant charter seats. The districts projected to leave the 10%-—Worcester, Brockton, Somerville, and Haverhill—serve large, diverse populations with many low-income students. The four suburban districts who will enter the bottom 10% under the new calculation, on the other hand, tend to serve more affluent populations.

The new formula effectively widens the opportunity gap, granting increased access to a quality education to students who are, on average, already more advantaged. At the same time, it denies that opportunity to the 2,200 students on public charter school waiting lists in the four communities slated to lose their higher charter cap—communities serving much larger proportions of disadvantaged students.

During the deliberations, several proponents of the change suggested the Board may further change the formula, placing yet more emphasis on growth and thereby removing more public charter seats from high-need urban areas. While growth in struggling districts should be commended, students in those districts cannot wait for that growth to reap fruit.

We need to do all that we can to ensure that all Massachusetts students have access to a quality education. But removing public charter school seats from the districts that need them most directly impedes that goal. Moving forward, we hope proponents of quality public education will resist further emphasis on growth in calculating the bottom 10% of districts.

A transcript of DFER’s testimony follows.

Thank you Dr. Commissioner, Madame Chairwoman, and members of the board.

My name is John Griffin. I am a policy fellow at Democrats for Education Reform, Massachusetts; a rising junior at Harvard College; and a proud graduate of Walpole Public Schools. I am also a former member of the Southeast Regional Advisory Council to the Board of Education, where we conducted rigorous studies of charter school policies in the Commonwealth.

When I was on the Advisory Council from 2010 to 2012, charter schools were a frequent topic of discussion. The debates were often contentious, but as student representatives in the room, we all seemed to share a common goal of reducing inequality and increasing parity of educational opportunity in Massachusetts. Today’s proposed regulations completely undermine that goal, effectively widening the opportunity gap by decreasing access to quality education of choice to already disadvantaged students while increasing access for students who are, on average, already more advantaged.

Under the proposed regulation, four districts—Worcester, Somerville, Brockton, and Haverhill—would no longer be classified in the bottom 10%, thereby losing their higher charter school cap. Four other districts—Hawlemont, Wareham, Dennis-Yarmouth, Spencer-East Brookfield, and Easthampton—enter the bottom 10%, gaining a higher cap. These districts feature significantly better performance than those districts removed from the bottom 10%, while also serving smaller proportions minority or low-income students.

While the Commonwealth has taken considerable steps toward reducing the opportunity gap since 1993, we cannot deny the fact that equal educational opportunity is not yet a reality in Massachusetts. Low-income and minority students still have greatly decreased access to quality education compared to their more privileged peers, and districts featuring greater proportions of minority or low-income students tend to exhibit unsatisfactory performance and growth.

According to the Supreme Judicial Court in McDuffy, the state Constitution mandates that the Commonwealth provide a quality education to all Massachusetts students—regardless of income level or zip code. The proposed regulations impede fulfillment of that obligation, solidifying a two-tiered educational system in which students of means are afforded several high-quality educational choices while students of need are consigned to struggling districts that cannot meet their needs.

In the four districts slated to be removed from the bottom 10%, fewer than half of all students were educated to a proficient level in math and English in 2013, as measured by MCAS. Meanwhile, 2,200 students in those communities remain on charter school waiting lists. The proposed regulations would directly decrease the chance of a better education for those students. If we are truly committed to the ideal of equitable public education, we cannot raise the cap in more affluent districts while lowering it in districts where public charter schools can do the most good.

The proposed regulations run counter to both conscience and Constitution.

Thank you.