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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Response to Proficiency Gap Task Force Recommendations

To:Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
From:Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
Date:June 17, 2010

At the special meeting of the Board on May 24, 2010, Jeff Howard presented the report and recommendations of the Board's Proficiency Gap Task Force. I would like to thank Jeff for his leadership of the Task Force and for bringing so many varied and knowledgeable voices to the table on this critical issue. The Task Force's recommendations will serve as an important guide for much of the agency's work over the coming years, especially as additional resources become available.

Below I have summarized some of the key agency activities either ongoing or planned for the short term that support the recommendations in the report. Our current investments focus on building statewide infrastructure and tools that can drive greater attention to and support for closing proficiency gaps as the primary endeavor of the education community.

A clear objective

The Task Force recommended that the Board adopt a goal that "by the year 2020, at least 85 percent of students from every subgroup, statewide, will score Proficient or Advanced on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams."

We have taken our first steps toward holding schools and districts accountable for closing proficiency gaps.

  • The recent state achievement gap legislation requires us to identify the lowest performing 20 percent of schools and 10 percent of districts.
  • We are currently developing a valid and reliable measure of district and school progress in closing proficiency gaps and are exploring the possibility of using this measure to identify the lowest performing schools and districts.
  • Exit criteria for Level 4 (underperforming) schools include a measure of progress in closing the proficiency gap for high needs students in the aggregate.

Further, we make available data that allows districts, schools, and the public to assess progress toward this goal in several ways:

  • We publish detailed data on proficiency for schools and districts, both overall and by subgroups, on our School and District Profiles web page.
  • We have recently developed a District Analysis and Review Tool (DART) that selects key indicators of school and district performance and displays them in a clear, easily understandable format with both trends over time and comparisons to state averages and other districts. This tool is accessible to every school and district in the state, and we plan to demonstrate it to the Board at the July meeting.
  • The DART already includes data on student achievement, growth, and gaps. Over the next several months we will review the existing reports in the DART and make changes as needed to align the data presented more closely with the Task Force's recommendations.

An operational structure

The Task Force's recommendations reinforced that agency structures must be built to ensure sufficient focus on and implementation of its recommendations.

  • I have asked the Office of Strategic Planning, Research, and Evaluation to take on greater responsibility for focusing the agency's efforts on implementation and outcomes through a more robust strategic planning process. Many of the elements we envision for this process are similar to those proposed by the Task Force; for instance, OSPRE will help DESE offices establish goals and measures of progress related to closing proficiency gaps and will track progress towards those goals. In this work we hope to partner with the U.S. Education Delivery Institute, a new Gates Foundation-funded nonprofit using the "deliverology" framework developed by Sir Michael Barber for British Prime Minister Tony Blair. This partnership will provide us support as we develop and implement these new processes and make them part of our organization practices and culture. To emphasize the centrality of proficiency gaps in this unit's work, we will rename it the Office of Planning and Research to Close Proficiency Gaps (OPRCPG).
  • OPRCPG has identified improving the agency's ability to measure the impact of its new tools, strategies, and resources as one of its top three research priorities for the next 18 months. Progress in this area will support the agency's ability to focus the agency's activities on reducing proficiency gaps and measuring the impact of its efforts to do so.
  • Our existing Office of Adult and Community Learning Services is eager to take on the role of providing information, support, and guidance to families and community leaders. They have the greatest expertise within the agency in reaching out to the underserved populations who would most benefit from greater engagement with their schools and communities, and they already run programs and outreach on related topics such as family literacy and adult education.

Strategies for change: Focused intervention

The Task Force recommended establishing a voluntary Commissioner's Network of 15 to 30 low performing Level 3 and Level 4 schools. The purposes of this Network are to support schools in gathering data frequently (e.g., through interim assessments and other student indicators) and using their data effectively, and to develop a laboratory for disseminating strategies for closing proficiency gaps.

We are implementing several activities to support more effective use of data statewide, and several more are featured in our Race to the Top proposal. Together, they will establish the essential foundation for focused intervention.

  • We have recently completed a District Data Team Toolkit that supports districts in using multiple forms of data to inform system-wide action planning. Six modules progress from establishing a District Data Team to launching an inquiry process, analyzing data, taking action, and monitoring results. This resource is available to all districts through our public website, and plans are underway to highlight its availability and provide implementation support for high need districts through our six District and School Assistance Centers (DSACs).
  • We have placed a data specialist in each of our six DSACs to facilitate access to high quality data analysis for smaller districts that lack the capacity to employ their own data teams. Race to the Top will allow us to double that number.
  • Over the course of the next school year, the Center for Targeted Assistance will extend its work with districts that have Level 4 schools to include Level 3 schools that compete successfully for federal school turnaround grants. The Center-sponsored network of turnaround schools will explore ways to bring district and school leaders together to examine data about student progress, chart courses of action based on that data, and together assess impacts of those actions.
  • The Task Force recommended that we identify a standard set of school performance indicators. We have made several steps in this direction. First, the DART identifies a set of 40 critical indicators of both school inputs and outcomes. Second, the 35 recently identified Level 4 schools will need to make progress towards a set of Measurable Annual Goals (MAGs) in order to exit Level 4 status. The MAGs, mandated by the new achievement gap legislation and being finalized over the next several months, will include measures of student performance and college readiness, other student indicators such as attendance and graduation rates, and school culture. As noted earlier, narrowing proficiency gaps is included as an exit criterion.
  • Through Race to the Top, we will make available statewide a Test Builder Engine that will allow participating districts to create and deploy formative and interim assessments as recommended by the Task Force. Use of interim assessments is a condition for school effectiveness and therefore a requirement for Level 4 schools. Those Level 4 schools that do not already have an interim assessment system in place will receive high priority for access to the state system, and we will build a network for them to work together on and learn from one another's experiences with implementation and deployment.
  • To support statewide use of formative assessments, part of the job of the six new DSAC data specialists funded through Race to the Top will be to help deploy the interim assessment system (and the teaching and learning system more generally), focusing first on district leadership teams.
  • Race to the Top will give us the resources to create customized dashboards in our Education Data Warehouse to provide quick access to critical data points for superintendents, principals, and teachers, as well as to deploy the Schools Interoperability Framework for data-sharing statewide so that our Data Warehouse includes the most timely, up-to-date data possible. We will also pre-qualify vendors that provide professional development and support on effective use of data to ensure their quality and to make them easily available to districts for contracting.

We have also begun to improve our ability to identify and disseminate best practices, beyond the OSPRE activities discussed above.

  • Our existing annual Curriculum and Instruction Summit focuses largely on strategies for closing proficiency gaps and is one of our most important mechanisms for disseminating promising practices. We intend to continue to support this statewide forum for teachers and instructional leaders and will intensify its focus on proficiency gaps.
  • The DSACs are another important vehicle for dissemination of promising practices. Beyond the data specialists already mentioned, the DSACs also include literacy and special education mathematics specialists, as well as a support facilitator focused specifically on building district capacity to implement effective practices for closing proficiency gaps. Race to the Top will allow us to add a general education mathematics specialist to each Center.

Strategies for change: A drive for statewide improvement

In this section, the Task Force made a number of other specific recommendations in the areas of English language learners, instructional leadership, early literacy, and family and community engagement. Work and planning is already underway in a number of these areas.

  • We expect to hire a new director for our Office of English Language Acquisition and Academic Achievement within the next several weeks. This person will be charged with reviewing all of our existing programs, grants, training, and other activities to support English language learners and with making changes as necessary. The Task Force's recommendations will play an important role in shaping those revisions.
  • To support more strategic school and district leadership focused on improving student achievement, we have already built a Level 4 school principals network and, together with the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, this summer will launch a three-year superintendent induction program open to all and available at little or no cost to superintendents of Level 3 and 4 districts.
  • The secretaries of education and of health and human services are co-chairing the Governor's Cabinet on Child and Youth Services, which aims in part to foster effective family and community outreach so that parents in our lowest performing schools can access the resources they need for their children to succeed.
  • Our Race to the Top application includes extensive supports for educators, including multiple professional development opportunities focused specifically on strategies for closing proficiency gaps. For example, we will provide access to training in tiered instruction models in literacy and mathematics, sheltered English immersion, and instructional leadership, and we will build a cadre of teachers and principals specially trained to work in turnaround schools.
  • Through Race to the Top, teachers will have opportunities to complete coursework online for endorsements to licensure in special education and English language development at low cost through online coursework. This will expand the supply of educators serving these two high priority student groups.
  • All Level 4 districts currently offer free full-day kindergarten to 100% of their students.

Last Updated: June 21, 2010
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