State should judge Dorchester Collegiate Academy equitably, and then keep it open

The Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, Mitchell Chester, has recommended closing Dorchester Collegiate Academy (DCA) based on his assessment that DCA did not make “significant and sustained academic improvement” on English Language Arts (ELA) and math standardized tests.  On Jan. 26, the Massachusetts Board of Education will vote on this recommendation. 

Standardized testing scores are not the only measure of academic improvement and, even if they were, DCA’s scores have shown clear improvement. I ask that board members broaden the measures by which they assess DCA and consider the points below:

• In May of 2015, five observers from the Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign conducted a thorough site visit of DCA. In the area of Program Delivery, which assesses if DCA delivers “an academic program that provides improved academic outcomes and is an educational success for all students,” the observers found that DCA “met expectations,” specifically in the areas of Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment and Program Evaluation, and Supports for Diverse Learners.

Q. Is it reasonable to close a school with an academic program assessed as an “educational success for all students?”

• DCA has a unique mission that focuses on educating students who, due to a range of academic, behavioral and social-emotional needs, have traditionally struggled in school. In the current academic year, over 45 percent of our students require counseling—with 16 percent requiring intensive counseling three or more times per week; over 25 percent of our students have disabilities that impede their access to the curriculum.

The site visitors found that DCA “met expectations” in the areas of Mission and Key Design Elements, which assess if DCA is “faithful to its mission and implements the key design elements outlined in its charter.”

Q. Is it reasonable to close a school that is meeting its mission of educating students with high needs, especially when a common criticism is that charter schools do not serve high needs students?

• While we continually and relentlessly strive to improve upon our academic program and standardized test scores, a valid case can be made that DCA has made “significant and sustained improvement” in our ELA and math standardized test scores. Consider data from the 2013 scores compared to 2015, which shows a 34 percent increase in the percentage of students scoring Proficient or Advanced in ELA; a 24 percent increase in the percentage of students scoring Proficient or Advanced in math; a 15 percent increase in the ELA student growth percentile; a 62 percent increase in the mathematics student growth percentile; ELA Long Composition writing scores in 2014 and 2015 outperformed the state average.

Q. Is it reasonable to close a school with strong gains in proficiency and student growth?

• I also submit that the recommendation to close DCA is inconsistent when compared to evaluations of other charter schools. Consider:
Like 34 percent of all Massachusetts charter schools, DCA has a Level 2 Accountability Level (Level 1 is the highest Accountability Level; Level 5 is the lowest); and four Massachusetts charter schools have a lower Accountability Level (Level 3) than DCA. However, no other Level 2 charter school has been recommended for closure and no other Level 3 schools have been recommended for closure.

Q. Given this inconsistency, is DCA being assessed fairly when its accountability level is the same as one third of MA charters and higher than four others? (and please note I am not suggesting closure of any charter school).

• In December, the commissioner recommended taking one Level 2 charter school off of probation even though the Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign found that its Program Delivery—in the areas of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment and Program Evaluation—only “partially met” expectations. Additionally, this charter school had a lower Student Growth Percentile in ELA (40) compared to DCA’s (46) and in mathematics (56.5) compared to DCA’s (64).

Q. Given this comparison, is DCA being assessed fairly when we have a stronger academic program and have higher student growth?

In reading the recommendation, I am reminded of Thomas Gradgrind, the stringent school board superintendent, in Charles Dickens’s “Hard Times.” In the novel’s opening scene, Gradgrind lectures a schoolmaster on his vision of education: “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life… root out everything else.” Gradgrind assesses the quality of an education by a singular measurement: the ability to understand facts. I believe we’ve progressed beyond using a singular measurement—in DCA’s case, standardized test scores— to assess quality education.

I ask Board of Education members to consider multiple measures to assess DCA as well as make a decision that is fair and equitable compared to other charter schools.

Bob Flynn is Headmaster of Dorchester Collegiate Academy Charter School.