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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Update on Massachusetts' Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Flexibility Waiver Request

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
February 17, 2012


I am very pleased to inform you that on February 9, 2012, the U.S. Department of Education formally approved the flexibility waiver application that we submitted on behalf of Massachusetts under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, reauthorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB). The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education discussed and voted to endorse the proposed flexibility waiver in October 2011.

At our February Board meeting I will review the changes to Massachusetts' district and school accountability and assistance system that are associated with approval of this waiver request. In short, the new system requires that schools and districts cut proficiency gaps in half over the next six years.


Central to the ESEA waiver is the opportunity to implement a unitary accountability system. Until now, we have provided two annual assessments of each school and district: one based on the Massachusetts five-tier system and a second based on the federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) metric. The AYP metric yields a dichotomous determination - "met" or "not met" AYP. The state system provides grades of classification, with Level 1 signaling strong performance and Level 5 signaling unacceptable performance.

Under state law, we identify up to four (4) percent of our schools as Level 4 (underperforming) or Level 5 (chronically underperforming), which triggers intensive intervention and support. In addition, we identify Level 4 (underperforming) and Level 5 (chronically underperforming) school districts. Lawrence is the first school district that we have declared Level 5. Under the federal NCLB law, almost 1,400 Massachusetts schools (81 percent) and approximately 350 districts (90 percent) currently are failing the AYP criteria. We have the capacity to provide intensive intervention and support in our Level 4 and 5 schools and districts that simply is not possible (nor warranted, in many cases) across 81 percent of our schools and 90 percent of our districts.

The high proportion of schools and districts that are missing AYP is a function of a target that is approaching 100 percent proficient - school-wide and by student group. The high proportion missing AYP is not reflective of the proportion of schools that are stagnant or faltering; in fact, the vast majority of schools in the Commonwealth are achieving at much higher levels than four or five years ago. In short, NCLB has made perfect the enemy of good. The sheer volume of schools and districts falling short of the federal standard renders AYP of little value in identifying those that are most in need of resource-intensive intervention. It is common sense that as educators and others increasingly judge the AYP standard to be unreasonable and unattainable, AYP has been losing its credibility and impact. Further, the combination of the Commonwealth and federal accountability systems increasingly has generated greater noise than signal, as more and more schools and districts have been judged inadequate under AYP but not under the state's tiered accountability and assistance system.

To be clear, the unitary system that we are implementing maintains our ambitious standards and expectations. At its heart, the new system requires schools and districts to cut proficiency gaps in half over the next six years. To achieve this end, the system builds on the Board's and Department's work over the past three years by expanding our approach to assistance and support, calling out and remedying performance gaps, expecting continuous improvement of schools and districts, rewarding strong performance, and aggressively intervening in low-performing schools and districts.

Implementation Timeline

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) will implement changes to Massachusetts's district and school accountability and assistance system at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, in accordance with our waiver plan. DESE has begun developing and disseminating print and electronic resources regarding the waiver, and has started to conduct meetings with district and school administrators to explain the changes that will result. DESE will continue its outreach to and training for district and school staff through this spring and summer.

Overview of Approved Flexibility

As we discussed in October, the flexibility waiver provides Massachusetts an opportunity to redesign our district and school accountability system in a way that unifies federal and state requirements while maintaining the Commonwealth's track record of setting high standards and expectations. Specifically, the waiver outlines a plan to:

  1. replace the unrealistic NCLB goal of 100 percent of students reaching proficiency by 2014 with the ambitious and achievable goal of reducing proficiency gaps by half by the end of the 2016-17 school year;
  2. classify each district and school in one of the state's five accountability and assistance levels based on its progress toward reducing proficiency gaps and readying all students for college and careers, and eliminate the NCLB accountability status labels of "identified for improvement," "corrective action," and "restructuring";
  3. annually report on district and school progress toward college and career readiness and reducing proficiency gaps through the use of a new Progress and Performance Index, which will incorporate the state's best measures of readiness for college and careers, including a student growth metric, and will replace current Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) reporting requirements;
  4. continue to identify and support the schools across the state that need the most assistance in the aggregate and for student subgroups, and recognize high achieving and improving schools;
  5. enhance our state's focus on subgroup performance by identifying schools with individual student groups that have the largest proficiency gaps and classifying them as Level 3/Focus schools, and by reducing the minimum group size for subgroup accountability determinations from 40 to 30 students;
  6. require districts with low performing schools to reserve federal Title I funds on a sliding scale to address identified needs that are aligned with the state's research-based Conditions for School Effectiveness, as opposed to mandating the one-size-fits-all NCLB requirements of school choice, supplemental educational services (SES), and professional development.

Last Updated: February 23, 2012
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