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AFT MA President Beth Kontos Criticizes DESE for Continuing Biased and Inaccurate School Rating System

In public comments submitted on February 23, AFT MA President Beth Kontos sharply criticizes a proposal by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to continue its ranking of schools based on biased and inaccurate MCAS-derived measures.

DESE has proposed suspending certain school accountability measures for School Year 2021-22, citing unreliable MCAS data from School Year 2020-21, when MCAS was administered during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, DESE plans to continue in 2022 with the heart of its accountability regime: the calculation of the school percentile metric, which is used to rank schools against each other based primarily on MCAS scores. DESE invited public comment on this proposal, and President Kontos’ letter was in response to that invitation. 

“What troubles us greatly…is your stated intent to move forward with the school percentile metric—a metric that research shows to be biased and deeply flawed,” Kontos writes in her letter. “The disruption to MCAS data caused by the pandemic only exacerbates the problems with this metric.”

Kontos’ letter cites recent research, including from a Nobel Prize-winning MIT economist, showing that the school percentile metric and its underlying MCAS achievement measures are biased and inaccurate measures of school quality. In other words, the supposed inferiority of low-rated schools serving predominantly students of color is due to inaccuracy in the measures (standardized test achievement levels) and is not due to lower-quality education. 

According to the MIT study, “Selection bias drives the correlation between widely used ratings and student racial composition: many schools rate higher simply because they serve students who tend to have higher test scores regardless of school quality (e.g., higher-income students).”

The MIT study warns that flawed accountability systems like that used in Massachusetts can perpetuate inequity and segregation: “Rating schemes that reward family background rather than educational effectiveness are likely to direct households to low-minority rather than higher-quality schools, while penalizing schools that improve achievement for less-advantaged groups.”

Kontos argues that this new research and the disruptions caused by the pandemic give policymakers the perfect opportunity to pause and reflect on the Massachusetts system: “We applaud DESE for its recent efforts to re-examine its policies through the lens of racial equity and justice. We wonder, however, why the school and district accountability system—with its demonstrated racial and socioeconomic bias and clear mismeasurement of school quality—has escaped this reckoning. Why does DESE continue to label and punish schools serving students of color based on biased, inaccurate, and discredited measures?”

The letter closes by calling for a suspension of the school percentile metric—not just in 2021-22 but indefinitely: “We owe it to our students to reckon with policies that have caused them harm and to abandon those policies. It’s time to develop new approaches to meet students’ social-emotional and academic needs and to foster their learning and growth.”

Read President Kontos’ complete letter here.

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