Bill Analysis: The Thrive Act

This election season, Massachusetts voters may face a ballot question on whether or not to end the MCAS graduation requirement. In the lead up to November, we are releasing a series of blog posts with all the information you’ll need to help you decide how to cast your vote. We kicked off our series in February with an overview of the MCAS and a look at its history. Last month we took a closer look at the graduation requirement itself and what proponents and opponents of the ballot initiative have to say. This month we’re offering an analysis of the Thrive Act, a bill currently under consideration in the Massachusetts legislature that would, in part, remove the MCAS graduation requirement. Please note that the Rennie Center is a non-advocacy organization and we are not advocating for this or any particular bill. We do, however, feel that this bill analysis provides important context in the discussion around MCAS.

The following summary outlines a bill under consideration in the current legislative session of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, mirroring a similar proposal in the Massachusetts Senate. The bill, commonly referred to as the Thrive Act (H.495), aims to make significant changes to the ways in which the state currently measures, supports, and assesses students and schools, and would require the development of a new vision for what student and school assessment and improvement should look like moving forward. 

The Thrive Act would make significant changes to how the state currently measures, supports, and assesses students
The bill first seeks to redefine the state’s competency determination for high school graduation. Currently, students must pass required MCAS exams in English, math, and science, as well as successfully complete locally-determined coursework requirements. The Thrive Act would remove any use of the MCAS as a graduation requirement and instead base decisions solely on successful completion of local coursework. Those who are at risk of not meeting local competency determinations would be required to receive an educational assistance plan developed through discussion with parents and families. [Note: under the current system, students who do not achieve a qualifying score on the MCAS to meet the competency determination are placed on an educational proficiency plan. Read more about this process in our recent blog post on the MCAS graduation requirement.] 

The Thrive Act would make significant changes to how the state currently measures, supports, and assesses schools and districts
The second section of the Thrive Act outlines the criteria and procedures for identifying schools that require “comprehensive support and improvement.” Under the current framework, MCAS scores in Massachusetts are used to determine school and district ratings from Level 1 (highest performance) to Level 5 (lowest performance) based on students' performance on key weighted indicators. These indicators currently include MCAS performance in English, math, and science, student achievement growth percentiles in English and math, high school completion rates, English language proficiency, chronic absenteeism rates, and the percentage of 11th and 12th graders completing advanced coursework. Schools and districts are classified as "in need of improvement" if they fall into Level 3 or below, indicating significant deficiencies in student achievement and progress. This designation often requires targeted interventions and support to address the underlying issues and improve overall educational outcomes.

Notably, the criteria for making such a determination in the Thrive Act must give at least as much weight to student growth scores as student achievement scores on standardized tests, emphasizing student progress over time equally to student performance. Currently, student growth is considered in determining school and district ratings, however, student achievement is weighted heavier than growth scores. The bill also states that no more than five percent of schools statewide can be designated as “comprehensive support and improvement schools” at one time. 

Once a school is labeled as a comprehensive support and improvement school, the superintendent would then be tasked with forming a diverse stakeholder group. This group must include an array of diverse, prescribed representatives of school and community leadership and would be responsible for creating a plan to improve school outcomes. As stated in the proposed law, the stakeholder group would then conduct a thorough investigation into the school’s challenges, assess available resources, and identify the school’s strengths. The improvement plan must incorporate evidence-based support strategies—many of which are mentioned explicitly in the legislation—including smaller class sizes, small group instruction, community school models, increased hiring, culturally relevant curricula, professional development for staff, early education opportunities, and strengthening college and career readiness pathways.

Once the stakeholder group finalizes the plan, it must be submitted to the school committee within 45 days for review. The group is encouraged to reach a consensus on the final plan, however dissenting members may present an alternative plan to the school committee. The plan then moves to the school committee for their input, changes, additional recommendations, and subsequent approval. Finally, the improvement plan heads to the Commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) for final review and approval.

Schools classified as needing “comprehensive support and improvement,” will have their plan reviewed annually by the superintendent for ongoing assessment and accountability, and progress will be publicly shared. Importantly, a school cannot remain under comprehensive support for more than four years. Upon the plan's expiration, the DESE Commissioner will determine if the school can exit the support designation. If the school still requires comprehensive support, the local district’s stakeholder group will reconvene to revisit and revise their goals, and the school may receive an additional four years of support. 

Finally, the bill goes on to state that schools designated as needing comprehensive support and improvement would also be prioritized in receiving additional Chapter 70 allocations to support evidence-based programs. Schools that successfully exit the plan can continue to receive funding for up to two years post-exit.

The third section of the bill states that any school district currently in receivership must have a transition plan in place to exit receivership and hire a superintendent within one year. Under the state’s current accountability system, the DESE Commissioner may appoint a receiver, possessing the authority of both the superintendent and school committee and reporting directly to the Commissioner, to oversee Level 5 or “chronically underperforming” districts and schools. “Chronically underperforming” districts are among the lowest 10% of districts statewide, as determined by state performance metrics, and have not shown signs of improvement over time. The appointed receiver works with a District Local Stakeholder Group that includes teachers, parents, and community members, among others, to develop a turnaround plan for improving student outcomes. Upon completion of the plan, the Commissioner reviews district outcomes to determine if sufficient progress has been made to exit receivership. The local school committee may also petition the Commissioner to change the district’s status. Massachusetts law states that no more than 2.5% of the total number of districts may be in receivership at one time. For more information, visit DESE’s FAQ page for “chronically underperforming” schools and districts.

The Thrive Act would require state leaders to establish a new vision for what student and school assessment and improvement should look like moving forward
The fourth section of the act calls for a commission to research the ways in which students are measured beyond standardized testing. This commission will research performance based tests, work samples, projects, etc. The commission will make recommendations on ways to measure students from their research to the state. The commission will be composed of designees within the Massachusetts legislature, non-profits, and other local organizations that have a focus on education. 

While removing the MCAS graduation requirement is just one part of the Thrive Act, understanding this legislation is an important part of the conversation around the proposed ballot initiative. For more on what opponents and proponents of the graduation requirement think, check out our recent blog post that delves into the debate.