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State School Takeover News from Massachusetts and Virginia

In a news story that will resonate far beyond the borders of the Bay State, Massachusetts has just released scores from state accountability tests (the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System), and at least four schools there are faced with the prospect of being taken over by the state.

First, on the overall scoring levels themselves, Massachusetts is bucking the trend in several states that has produced many "scores plunge" headlines. For 10th grade students, a passing score is required on the MCAS to graduate. Last year, 86 percent of those high school sophomores hit or exceeded that passing score on their first try, but in the 2013 results reported Sept. 18 by the state department of education, 88 percent made the MCAS grade. The department said that 91 percent of students were proficient in English, 80 percent fit that description in math, and 71 percent did so in science.

But not everything is rosy in the state, particularly for a couple of Boston elementary schools. As the Boston Globe points out, four schools in the state (the two Beantown schools as well as one in Holyoke and one in New Bedford) are facing the prospect of being taken over by the state based on low MCAS performance.

"The takeovers would mark the first time state education officials have ever seized control of individual schools without putting an entire district into receivership," the paper reports. State Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester told the Globe that action was "very likely" to take place regarding the schools' fate this fall.

They are among the schools placed on what was essentially a watch list back in 2010 due to low test performance, although 15 of the schools on that list have since escaped the prospect of dropping to the lowest ranking by virtue of their performance on the 2013 MCAS tests.

Keep in mind, however, that the MCAS in Massachusetts is not like the recently-revamped test in New York that is aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Chester singled out MCAS, in fact, for still not providing us with the "signal or rigor we need" to determine students' readiness for college and careers. Massachusetts is one of the states participating in a field test of a new common-core aligned test, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, in the 2013-14 school year.

In recent years, state school takeovers are often associated with more conservative states in different parts of the country, like Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia (although New Jersey provides a long-running example from the northeast). But the news from Massachusetts shows that a variety of states, however reluctantly, are willing to use state takeovers, perhaps especially in the new K-12 policy environment.

Speaking of Virginia, since I wrote the story about the school boards association's plan to file a legal challenge to the state's new state takeover law, the lawsuit has in fact been filed. The association has filed the suit along with the Norfolk district, but one other district has announced its support for the Virginia legal fight, even if it isn't officially a party to the suit. Obviously Virginia's situation is much less settled than the one in Massachusetts, which goes back several years. But there are likely many other districts in Virginia that feel the same as the Nelson County district highlighted in the news report.

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