School Curriculum Subcommittee discusses racial disparities in MCAS results and new attendance numbers

The School Curriculum Subcommittee convened virtually via Zoom on Oct. 18, at 4:00 p.m., where they discussed issues related to depreciating Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) scores, racial disparities in standardized tests and how to address the lack of school attendance.

The committee reviewed the 2021-2022 MCAS results in the Public Schools of Brookline (PSB) in a presentation by Michelle Herman, the Senior Director of Curriculum and Instruction at the PSB. Regarding overall results, Herman said that compared to the 2020–2021 school year, the 2021-2022 math scores increased by nine percent in the “Exceeding Expectations” category while English Language Arts (ELA) scores declined by eight percent in this category.

Herman said that the state still has ways to go across all subject areas to fully recover from learning losses throughout the pandemic. Herman said in ELA the two main focus areas for improvement are early literacy and writing scores.

“What we found out is our students are actually earning most [ELA] points in the ability to write a full sentence and to use the conventions of print. Where scores are falling is in developing ideas based on what they read and responding to the reading in writing,” Herman said.

Herman presented a central area of concern: the substantial racial disparity within the MCAS scores. Although the committee said that three years of data are needed for a complete analysis of the district’s MCAS results, the 2021-2022 scores demonstrated lower performance amongst Black students than in prior years.

“The fact that our [Black students’ results] are significantly behind our white students’ stands out to me. They leave significantly less prepared, whether it’s for college or career readiness,” Herman said. “There are some things that have consistently been on our radar, and we need to act upon them.”

Lesley Ryan Miller, Deputy Superintendent of Teaching & Learning at the Public Schools of Brookline (PSB), said to mitigate the racial disparities in MCAS scores, the district will have to focus on students most in need.

“We have a substantial amount of funding that is going to support teachers with professional development that they may need to best support our students,” Miller said. “I think the silver lining we have is that we can get our arms around [the racial disparity in MCAS], and we can do something about it.”

Following the presentation on MCAS results, Gabe McCormick, Director of Professional Development at PSB, discussed data on student attendance in school. Based on data that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) gathered, Chronic Absenteeism increased significantly, and McCormick said that the data revealed that 15 percent of students were chronically absent (10% or more school days missed) in 2022, compared to 11 percent of students in 2021. Additionally, 1.7 million school days were missed in Massachusetts due to positive COVID-19 cases in 2022.

“One of the things we’ve seen is there has been a cultural shift of when to come to school, and when to stay in school,” McCormick said. “In response, we’re doing all of the steps; notifying parents and reinforcing the importance of school.”

Regarding the attendance data, McCormick said that Black students had the second lowest attendance rate, with students with disabilities being the lowest.

“Students with disabilities have historically been absent more than our district average last year,” McCormick said. “And Black students were absent more than our district average, and [their absence] increased substantially.”

McCormick said that funding needs to be used for targeted support instead of schoolwide programs. Currently, the committee is working with schools that are above the district average poverty rate to develop targeted supports and get grants approved, such as providing M7 Bus passes that don’t have to be reloaded with money for socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

“Hopefully, the M7 will help ease [students’ need for transportation] and allow kids to get to school,” McCormick said. “In addition to that, we’re working on a number of different academic programs to support students within school and after school through tutoring and other interventions.”