School ranking report spurs HWRSD to ask, 'what do you value?' – Reminder Publications

Dec. 21, 2022 | Sarah Heinonen

HAMPDEN/WILBRAHAM – Minnechaug Regional High School (MRHS) was ranked by U.S. News & World Report as 162 out of 340 ranked Massachusetts high schools. Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District (HWRSD) Superintendent John Provost asked the School Committee to decide if and how much rankings should dictate the way the school educates students.
Provost began the Dec. 15 School Committee meeting by reviewing the 2022 data from U.S. News & World Report, which ranks schools and colleges annually. He said the data is “lagging” because it is based on the average of the three previous years.
U.S. News & World Report’s ranking criteria are weighted with 30 percent “college readiness,” which is the portion of 12th graders who took and earned a qualifying score on at least one Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) exam. Meanwhile 10 percent is based on the portion of those 12th graders who earned a qualifying score on AP and IB exams in multiple areas.
Ten percent of the score is determined by graduation rates. Twenty percent of the ranking is “proficiency,” based on aggregated MCAS scores and another 20 percent is “performance,” which the company’s website explains, compares the MCAS scores with “U.S. News’ expectations given the proportions of students who are Black, Hispanic and from low-income households.”
There is also 10 percent based solely on the MCAS scores of students who are Black, Hispanic and from low-income households and their comparison with “typical” non-undeserved students. The superintendent said this was problematic.
“It’s not okay for us to have different expectations for students of different races,” Provost said. School Committee member Bill Bontempi agreed, saying “It’s racist to think test scores from students who are Black or brown would lower test scores.”
Provost said that the district can increase the ranking of MRHS with higher MCAS scores, on which it is already working, and graduation rates, which are currently at 98 percent. The district could also increase the ranking by boosting the number of students taking AP tests and the number of AP tests each student takes. He said HWRSD could make it mandatory to take at least one AP class and that would put the district “at the top of the list,” because no one else does that.
The question the School Committee had to ask themselves, Provost said, is, “Are we going to chase rankings?”
School Committee member Patrick Kiernan opined that the rankings should not be given so much weight and cited the controversy earlier this year when a whistleblower at Columbia University exposed the institution for inflating its data to increase its ranking in the report.
Bontempi said that AP tests make sense as a measurable piece of data with which to look at college readiness, but for students entering the workforce or the military, it may not be worthwhile. He wondered how HWRSD compares to other districts in terms of college enrollment versus students who enter the workforce and military.
Provost responded, “That may be a more impactful measure.”
School Committee member Sean Kennedy asked Provost if he thought 12th graders should take AP classes. The superintendent suggested asking students what they want. Another option would be to remove financial barriers by subsidizing the cost of the AP test, which would increase the participation rate.
School Committee member Sherrill Caruana noted that many colleges do not put as much emphasis on AP scores as they used to and instead use their own placement tests.
“What do you value?” MRHS Principal Steven Hale asked. “If we go chasing this ranking you’re giving a lot of power to the college board,” through which AP classes are administered. He said if the district wants to encourage AP participation, it can, but “it’s all for a test.”
Hale also noted that the average passing rate for AP tests at MRHS is 80 percent, while other area districts have higher participation and passing rates of 44 to 68 percent. He asked if the district wants as many students as possible to take the tests, regardless of how well they are prepared.
Bontempi said that even if the passing rates were lower, the experience of participating in a more rigorous, college-level class is valuable for students to see if college is the right choice for them. Provost noted “vetted” honors courses may also expose students to college-level courses.
The question to consider Bontempi said, is “where the district is going.” He said there is no objective data to support the idea that HWRSD is an “exceptional” school district.
Rather than rely on U.S. News & World Report, Kennedy said district administration should create its own criteria and formula to measure its performance year over year. “I don’t think this report is reflective of our community,” he said.
Wilbraham Middle School was also ranked and came in at 194 out of 1,006 of the state’s middle schools. The school was among the top 30 percent of middle schools for reading and “just missed” the top 30 percent in math.
Equity audit
Provost asked the committee to vote on the approval of Mass Insight as the firm to complete the equity audit. The specifications for the audit were compiled by the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee and four firms from the state’s list of qualified firms had responded to the request for bids. Of American Institutes for Research, TNTP, The Leadership Academy and Mass Insight, the last had the lowest bid of $119,500. The DEI Committee verified that the company’s proposal was responsive to the specifications.
Bontempi asked if the public would be able to interview representatives of the company. Assistant Superintendent for Finances, Operations and Human Resources Aaron Osborne told him that the firm had been approved by the state and the district was not experienced enough to qualify the bidders. Osborne said that because the cost was over a certain threshold, the district was required to take the lowest bidder whose proposal satisfied the specifications.
Mass Insight does nearly everything virtually, Bontempi said, while other companies may be more “committed.” He “implored” his fellow committee members to interview each company. Osborne said they could scrap the bids they have received and issue a request for proposals and create a rubric to determine who was most qualified. Price would be one of the criteria.
Bontempi said the committee had a responsibility to examine firm qualifications because it had “illegally” voted to instruct the administration to conduct an equity audit. Kennedy pushed back on that statement, repeatedly saying that was Bontempi’s “opinion.”
One of the concerns Bontempi cited was the bids for the audit, which ranged as high as $226,196. He said the cost was estimated at around $60,000 when the vote was taken in 2021 and asked why there was such a price difference. Kennedy noted the inflation spike since then and an increase in demand for audits.
Kiernan said the incidentals and extra services offered, such as in-class observations, could total as much as $57,000 more.
“I don’t think we should get into that upselling,” Provost told him.
The committee voted 4-2 to approve a contract with Mass Insight. Bontempi and Kiernan voted against the contract, while Vice Chair Maura Ryan was not present. The audit will be paid for with funding from an Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief grant and will not impact the district’s operational budget.
Share this:


Leave a Comment