Massachusetts education officials are considering a new student-achievement benchmark that they hope will be more attainable than a nearly decade-old federal requirement that has fallen out of favor under the Obama administration.
A task force of the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education today recommended setting a goal that 85 percent of students would score proficient or advanced on the MCAS test by 2020. That would represent a departure from a goal established under former President George W. Bush that called for 100 percent of students to be proficient by 2014.
The new benchmark and longer time line, state education officials say, reflect the enormous task the state confronts in raising achievement for all students, as well as specific categories of students, based on such factors as race/ethnicity, income levels, and learning disabilities.
Officials say more work needs to be done to overhaul underperforming schools and expand programs for English-language learners, two areas where test achievement lags. They also want to beef up, among other things, literacy programs for all elementary school students.
Board member Jeff Howard, who chairs the task force on the "proficiency gap," said the group believed the proposed goal was more appropriate and reachable.
"We were looking for something challenging but realistic that would mobilize people's attention and resources to get it done," said Howard, who is president and founder of the Efficacy Institute in Waltham, a national nonprofit that works with school districts on programs to boost the achievement of economically disadvantaged students. "A goal that is unrealistic has no mobilizing effect on anyone."
While some groups of students are somewhat near the proposed goal, others are far behind, according to the report by the task force on the "proficiency gap."
The federal goal, created about eight years ago under the No Child Left Behind Act, has been losing credibility with many educators, researchers and education advocates across Massachusetts, as the state has targeted more than half of all its schools for improvement or radical overhauls because of a failure to make adequate annual progress in reaching the 2014 deadline. It's a sentiment that is prevalent in other states as well, prompting some to lower standards for proficiency.
It's not entirely clear how President Obama might replace the Bush-era goal. Obama has said he wants a more nuanced method of judging schools that would likely go beyond test scores. Ultimately, he wants school systems to graduate students who are ready for college or the workforce. Any changes would have to be approved by Congress.
The proposed goal in Massachusetts drew a mix of praise and skepticism.
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said he would welcome the change.
"It's a reasonable goal," Scott said. "I think it has a more realistic chance of success than the federal objective had."
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, called the new goal ambitious, but was somewhat skeptical about the state's motives in establishing the new benchmark.
"Is this just another attempt to regulate and punish, or is it a sincere effort to get kids to proficiency and help districts get there?" said Koocher, who had not yet read the report. "This being Massachusetts, we have to read carefully into the fine details of the proposal, before drawing final conclusions."
It's not clear whether the proposed goal would carry any sanctions against schools that fail to meet it. The state board is scheduled to discuss the report at its next meeting.
Mitchell Chester, the state's commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said he thought the new goal had a lot of merit but was not sure about the 85-percent mark.
"I'm a believer of setting goals," Chester said. "I like conceptually what's been recommended."
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