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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Statement by James A. Peyser on Raising High School Graduation Standards & Changes to School Accountability System

October 24, 2006

The two proposals before us today regarding graduation standards and school accountability both break new ground, but at the same time they both return us to first principles embodied in the Education Reform Act of 1993.

Since the Class of 2003, the state standard for earning a competency determination has been scoring 220 in English and math. While this was a challenging target in 2000 when the Board established the standard, today close to 85 percent of sophomores exceed it on their first attempt. Moreover, our experience over the past six years has made clear that barely passing a 10th grade exam in two subjects is simply not good enough to prepare students for success in college or a successful career in the global marketplace.

The authors of the Education Reform Act knew this back in 1993, which is why they directed us to develop world-class academic standards and performance-based graduation requirements that ensure students demonstrate mastery, not just basic competence, in all core subject areas. Today, we move a step closer to fulfilling that vision by clearly setting our sights on proficiency and college readiness for all students.

The proposal on the table would establish a score of 240 in English and math as the goal for everyone, beginning with the class of 2010. For those students who do not hit the 240 mark in one or both subjects, we would now require that schools develop personalized Educational Proficiency Plans to ensure that these students are taking and successfully completing a challenging course of study in grades 11 and 12. The proposal would further reaffirm the incorporation of science into the MCAS graduation requirement for the class of 2010, while adding U.S. History for the class of 2012. At the same time, we are recommending the legislature appropriate $25M next year to increase extra help programs for students trying to meet these new requirements.

We are also proposing to reposition the certificate of mastery to become a benchmark of college readiness, to which we hope all students will ultimately aspire. The new certificate of mastery would be based on the completion of a comprehensive curriculum through the 12th grade and the demonstration of college-entry level knowledge and skills.

Besides raising the standard for high school graduation, we are also considering today regulations that would substantially overhaul the school accountability system. The current system is too slow, too process oriented, and too incremental, and it fails to address some of the key structural problems that make transformative school change difficult or impossible. As a result, students still languish in underperforming schools and the achievement gap continues unabated.

The authors of the Education Reform Act empowered the Board and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to intervene forcefully in failing schools to ensure that the interests of students and families are protected. Specifically, the law authorizes the Board to change or amend school improvement plans and to take "such other actions" it deems necessary to improve school performance.

Today, consistent with existing law and faithful to its original intent, we are proposing that the Board and Department revise their policies and procedures to accelerate the process for determining which schools are underperforming, establish clear expectations and guidelines for improvement plans, and broaden the range of intervention and assistance options available to the state and district officials. In addition, we are proposing several statutory changes that would serve to remove certain impediments to timely and effective action on behalf of students, and we are recommending an additional $25M to support school turnaround initiatives.

There are those who argue that irrespective of the merits of the proposals before us, we should defer any action until a new administration and a new legislature are sworn in. Other critics suggest that we should delay our scheduled vote in order to engage in a longer and broader process of consultation and negotiation with the field. I respectfully disagree.

Throughout the past year, this board has actively and openly discussed various aspects and shortcomings of our graduation standards and school accountability system. We have accumulated six years worth of 10th grade MCAS results, since the time the graduation requirement went into effect. We have almost seven years of experience with our existing school accountability system. We have sought and heard the opinions of hundreds of stakeholders, legislators, educators and citizens. This is not a decision we are taking in ignorance or in haste. Nevertheless, it is a decision we are taking with a deeply felt sense of urgency. Our students cannot wait for another school year to go by while we adults bicker over policy and power.

More than thirteen years ago the Education Reform Act plotted the course, and we have been following it ever since. Although this board has from time to time attempted to accelerate the pace, I'm afraid we are still only at the beginning our journey to fulfill the vision of that landmark law. If anything, we have been far too cautious in demanding and enabling transformative change. We have proceeded thoughtfully, deliberately and openly in developing the proposals that are now before us. The time to act is now.

Last Updated: October 24, 2006
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