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Councilors push BPS to release promised assignment data

District promised yearly reports, yet four years later details are scant about new assignment system

Karen Morales
Councilors push BPS to release promised assignment data
District 7 Councilor Tito Jackson and District 5 Councilor Timothy McCarthy question BPS officials.

In 2013, the Boston Public Schools implemented a new assignment process, replacing the old three-zone system with the home-based system, and promised to give yearly updates on how the new system was affecting equity in the schools.

Yet four years later, the department has yet to release data, let alone issue even one of its promised reports on the assignment system.

Last week, District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson and District 5 Councilor Timothy McCarthy held a public hearing at City Hall to hear from BPS representatives on why an equitable analysis on the home-based student assignment system has not yet been released.

Under the three-zone system, parents were able to select any school in the zone in which they resided — North, East or West — entering their children into a lottery for that school.

The home-based system was developed in partnership with MIT and gives families access to a minimum of six schools that are ranked by four different tiers. Every school within a mile of a student’s home address and all citywide options are on a student’s list.

According to the BPS website, “At the close of every registration period, our assignment computer program (algorithm) matches students to seats based on their priorities (if applicable), their random number, and the number of seats available in the grade desired at each school in the order they were ranked on that student’s application.”

The schools are ranked by tier using metrics including how each school’s students performed on MCAS tests in a recent two-year period. Every family’s school list includes at least two of the highest-ranked schools.

In former Superintendent Carol Johnson’s 2013 Final Letter of Recommendation to the External Advisory Committee and the Boston School Committee, she required that the BPS provide an annual report on or before October 1 to the City Council, measuring “changes in equitable access to quality seats for all students, as well as changes to school academic performance and overall quality.”

At the hearing, Jackson said, “This report is four years overdue. BPS owes it to the people of Boston a review of these very important decisions that were made and to determine whether or not our young people and their families are being better served.”

Explanation of the delay

Monica Roberts, assistant superintendent of engagement for BPS, said the department will not begin work on the equity analysis report until later in December and the initial report will come out in the Spring of 2018, as well as annually thereafter.

When describing the limitations of an earlier report release, Roberts said, “The MIT team advised the EAC that three years of data would be needed to do a statistically valid and actionable equity analysis.”

She continued, “An annual report would be limited to trend identification, which the district could use to predict future outcomes. However, data from such report would not be considered actionable in terms of decision-making.”

In addition, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s change in its assessment system from MCAS to PARCC has made it difficult for BPS to compare data year-to-year, said Roberts.

BPS officials also took time in deciding who would be conducting the equity analysis.

“From our perspective, in terms of community trust, we wanted to have a third party,” said Roberts.

In Spring 2017, the office of engagement opened up a bid for an independent evaluator. In October 2017, the office accepted a bid from Boston Area Research Initiative and hired a deputy director of evaluation and programs, Dr. Lisa Harvey, who will oversee the equity analysis.

At the hearing, Harvey said that the equity analysis will look at students’ access to both high-quality schools on their list and access to high-quality seats. “We’re going to determine if all students have that access … just having a school on your list doesn’t mean there’s a seat in that school for your child, at that grade, with the program that they want,” she said.

Harvey reinforced the reasoning behind waiting to produce a report.

“Yes, we could have done something in the first year, but that would have just told us about one year,” she said. “What we’re doing is looking at the last three years of the three-zone system and the first three years of the home-based system to compare.”

Unified enrollment?

Jackson steered the meeting toward the topic of unified enrollment, a controversial school enrollment policy, which the Banner had previously reported was informed by private entity the Boston Compact.

“It’s important for the City Council to know what the school department has done in regards to unified enrollment,” said Jackson.

“I’m on the steering committee for the Boston Compact on behalf of BPS along with some of my colleagues,” said Roberts. “What we have been focusing on is cross-sector opportunities where we can learn from one another.”

She said, “There’s a lot of cross-sector learning but we are not currently having any conversations on unified enrollment.”

Councilor McCarthy raised questions about the school department’s tier system. “What is the secret ingredient that makes some schools Tier 1, while the Mattahunt school almost gets taken over by the state?” he asked.

McCarthy added that there should be more communication and sharing of information between schools to improve the quality of every school.

Other issues discussed at the meeting included transportation options for families who move or for students who attended a school that closed, and how BPS accurately determines which seats and how many seats are open at different schools.

The councilors opened up the floor for public comments.

Matthew Cregor, education project director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice said it was crucial that the equity analysis answer five questions broken down by race, ethnicity, special education status, socioeconomic status, English language learner status and neighborhood: how many students were assigned to their first, second and third choice schools; how many seats are open at Tier 1 schools; what does the data suggest about students’ school preferences; how has each school’s student demographics changed since the home-based system was implemented; and how has the change in student assignment impacted academic results.

Lauren Peter, a parent from Roslindale shared her testimony. “I was pregnant when the home-based system first started and now my daughter is born and ready to enter K1, but we don’t feel like you have figured out the system yet,” she said. “Please find a way to improve the home-based system and be more transparent.”

A mother of three kids and resident of South Boston, Kayla Rudder said for the record that the way BPS assigns seats to students is confusing and unfair.

“There is denial to certain schools. My daughters got put into schools in Roxbury and Dorchester. A long commute from South Boston,” she said.

“BPS claims schools are full when they are not,” she added.

Another parent, Latoya Gayle said, “I don’t believe there will be improvements for black students. We shouldn’t have to worry about where quality schools are — all schools should be quality. There is not an equitable access to information to make decisions on our children’s education. It should not be based on the parents’ level of education.”

Gayle added, “We should not have to work magic to get our kids into good schools.”

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