PITTSFIELD — Pittsfield High School junior Olivia Nda is a valuable member of her school's track and soccer teams.
Her scholarship, leadership, commitment to community service and character have earned her a place with the National Honor Society. Her dedicated viola practice — an instrument she's studied since the third grade — has afforded her a seat with the school orchestra and a performance at New York City's Lincoln Center.
Despite all her experience, pursuits and achievements, whether Nda will earn a high school diploma depends on how well she did on a singular set of tests, administered through the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, taken in 10th grade.
Whatever she'll do the rest of this year and her senior year could be exciting to her and impressive to her peers, teachers, even college admissions staff, but these achievements don't have any leverage with state high school graduation requirements.
"Each and every student is different," she said, noting how music is as equal an expression of knowledge as calculus. "I don't think we should have a baseline test that says this is who you are."
This is exactly why local and state education leaders and stakeholders in public education want to see the system change and include more ways of measuring student growth and achievement.
And they say now's the time to advocate, loudly and clearly, for such changes.
Mass Inc., a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank, has dedicated the better part of a year to exploring opportunities and challenges that could present themselves since President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law on Dec. 10, 2015. The legislation succeeds the federal mandate of No Child Left Behind to hold schools accountable for getting all public school students in the country performing at a proficient level by 2014, which never happened.
The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, basically reauthorizes President Lyndon B. Johnson's Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was created during the "War on Poverty" era. ESSA renews the focus on creating and sustaining pathways of excellence and equity in education for all the nation's children versus focusing on meeting state testing benchmarks.
ESSA's regulations went into effect on Jan. 30, and require states to submit education plans for ESSA compliance and accountability by either an April 3 or Sept. 18 deadline. Massachusetts education officials are working toward meeting the April 3 deadline and have instituted a public comment period and survey that will remain open until March 9.
Which is why Mass Inc. and other school leaders and education stakeholders are making public campaigns to inform people about ESSA, the proposed state plan and to solicit input before March 9.
Mass Inc. Research Director Ben Forman said that for so-called Gateway Cities like Pittsfield, urban centers outside of Boston that are critical indicators of the state of the commonwealth, to advance, they must enhance their educational assets and vision to create high-quality learning environments.
"If the new formula the state designs to sort schools is not sensitive to the complexity of inclusive urban districts," Forman wrote in a December 2016 policy paper, "Gateway Cities will have great difficulty attracting both families with young children and talented educators to their communities."
Mass Inc. convened a public breakfast forum at the Berkshire Museum last week, in partnership with the Berkshire Compact for Education, to address how to best improve the state's current accountability system.
Olivia Nda was the lone student panelist for a community conversation held on what's at stake and what needs to be done. Some 50 education leaders took part in the event, including six additional panelists from the Berkshire community.
Berkshire United Way President and CEO Kristine Hazzard said it was important to engage parents and community members in this public input process by "meeting them where they are," and reaching out directly to them versus inviting them to attend a meeting.
North Adams School Committee Vice Chairwoman Heather Boulger said "academic proficiency is no longer enough to prepare kids for the 21st century."
Boulger, who also is executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board, said listening and communications skills, decision making and time management, and workplace and practical experience are equally as important for a student to have in addition to textbook knowledge.
Berkshire County Education Task Force member Andrea Wadsworth explained how the group is now implementing a $150,000 state grant to work with the Boston firm District Management Group and District Management Council to identify potential models for education improvement in Berkshire County.
From a teaching perspective, Sheran said that any future accountability models should into consideration educator collaborations and plans to improve the environments of poorer schools.
"We also have to look at models of other nations — Norway, Finland, South Korea — which are not as obsessed with accountability and more with overall achievement. There's only so much we can do in eight hours a day."
Brendan Sheran, chairman of the social studies department at Pittsfield High School, said in terms of the current assessment and accountability systems, the "data doesn't accurately reflect the growth of our students."
And Dana Rapp, education department professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, said that MCAS scores are able to identify students and groups that aren't being helped by the education but can't indicate whether students are being supported and given a sense of self-worth to help them better face any economic or social obstacles that could be stunting their personal and academic growth.
"We need students who leave here not just proficient but who think deeply and creatively about the world [they will] inherit," he said.
Reach staff writer Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.