Research shows significant benefits to METCO students

Boston students who participated in a school integration program in suburban districts scored higher on certain standardized tests and were more likely to enroll in four-year colleges, according to newly released research findings.

Participants selected for METCO, a voluntary desegregation busing program that launched in the 1960s, saw "substantial gains" on MCAS exams and notched better attendance records compared to their peers who didn't get into METCO, according to a study led by Elizabeth Setren, an assistant professor of economics at Tufts University.

METCO participants also had a lower dropout rate and higher on-time graduation rate compared to their peers not in the program, which is officially known as the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity.

"What I think is probably the most impressive and impactful impact that we see in the METCO data of the METCO program is that it's really shifting college expectations for the students who participate," Setren said during a presentation at The Boston Foundation. "METCO is increasing the likelihood of students (that) are aspiring to college by a pretty substantial amount."

The program has the "largest impact" on students whose parents didn't graduate college, according to Setren's presentation.

Setren said she hoped her research, which studied K-12 enrollees from the 1990-91 through 2019-2020 school years, would be "harnessed for future decision making," such as boosting enrollment of METCO students in advanced courses and providing more assistance for SAT preparation.

Her presentation focused on roughly 20,000 students who applied to METCO and entered first grade between 2002-03 and 2016-17. Setren's MCAS analysis reflected results as of the 2018-19 school year, and her career outcomes findings involved older student cohorts who are now 35 or older.

Black students in Boston are "very interested" in METCO, Setren said, and have comprised about 80 percent of applicants over the last 20 years. The program is also popular for Latinx students, she said.

METCO supports 3,100 families annually across 31 suburban districts and 190 public schools that are part of the program, according to METCO’s website.

Setren said the majority of students participate in METCO starting in kindergarten or first grade, and they stick with the program until they graduate high school. Most students who aren't accepted into METCO attend Boston Public Schools, with a small fraction going to charter schools, she said.

Setren's research found that four-year college aspirations and enrollment increased by 17 percentage points among METCO participants.

Students were more likely to enroll in "all but the most competitive colleges," such as Ivy League schools, according to Setren and an executive summary of her research. Setren indicated that METCO participants could benefit from more help with the college application process, which could increase their likelihood of getting accepted into more selective colleges that "often provide more generous financial aid," according to the summary.

At college, METCO students saw a six percentage-point increase in graduation rates, and from ages 25 through 35, they had increased earnings. Program alumni have a higher likelihood of landing jobs in Massachusetts that contribute to payroll taxes, and they have a higher employment rate at age 25, according to Setren's presentation.

"They are more likely to persist through college, to make it to senior year, to make it to graduation," Setren said. "But also an area that METCO has shown a lot of interest in and we'll be working on, there is some fade-out, so not everyone who starts in college is able to complete."

SAT-test taking increased by 30 percent for METCO students. Setren found the program increased their chance of scoring 1,000 or higher by 38 percent. But those students weren't more likely to score above 1,200, and Setren said SAT supports could help them secure higher scores.

METCO students were not more likely to take AP exams compared to their peers who didn't get into the program, Setren said. She suggested school districts evaluate how they assign students to courses, which could potentially lead to more METCO students enrolling in advances courses, such as AP-level classes.

The METCO program led to successful results for MCAS scores, Setren found.

"For K-12 performance, we find really large, huge gains for MCAS math scores across all grades. Going earliest third grade, all the way to tenth grade, students are really closing the achievement gap between them and the state average," Setren said. "Students who apply to the METCO program, they don't get in, score substantially below the state average."

Among other METCO benefits, the "program lowers the likelihood students are suspended by about one-third for middle and high school grades and two-thirds for elementary grades," according to the executive summary.

"METCO enrollment increases school attendance by 2 to 4 days a year despite the farther distance and fewer public transit options if students miss the school bus," the summary continues.


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