Chilmark School MCAS scores difficult to gauge

Chilmark School. — File photo by Mae Deary

At first glance, the results for Chilmark School on the 2011 Massachusetts Comprehensive System (MCAS) exams show a significant drop from 2010.

But with a closer look, what appears to be a significant statistical change in overall results from a small school like Chilmark’s may actually be the result of a few students’ low scores, according to Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) administrators.

The 2011 MCAS scores for students in grades three through five at the Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and West Tisbury schools remained level or showed slight increases or decreases from last year. The percentages of students who scored proficient or above on English language arts (ELA) exams ranged from 83 to 88 percent and on math exams from 65 to 79 percent.

At Chilmark School, however, 62 percent of students scored proficient or above on ELA exams, which is a decrease of 12 percent since 2010. On math exams, 57 percent of students scored proficient or above, which is a 28 percent drop from last year.

“In a school that has a small number of students, oftentimes two students who do poorly can skew the percentages,” Susan Stevens, head of Chilmark School, said in a phone conversation with The Times on Monday. “When you have four kids who take an MCAS test and two have low scores, it makes a huge difference.”

Last spring 21 of Chilmark School’s 52 students took the ELA and math MCAS exams. By contrast, MCAS participation in elementary grades at the other four MVPS schools ranged from 193 students to 267.

If a student group is less than 10, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) does not calculate MCAS performance level percentages. Since the Chilmark School does not have subgroups large enough to measure, results are calculated for the school overall.

“Statistically, when you have a majority of students score low, it takes down your top scores when they’re averaged,” Ms. Stevens said. “Two students is not usually a majority in a school, but it can be in ours because of the low numbers of students that take MCAS exams.”

Superintendent of schools James Weiss agreed. “As far as Chilmark goes, I don’t think you can even compare year to year,” Mr. Weiss wrote in an email Monday, in response to questions emailed by The Times. “The numbers are so small that changes are not statistically significant. If there are eight students in a grade, one small change skews the entire percentage. At all schools we look for trend data — changes over time — and the small percentage changes mean very little.”

The next step

Regardless of the shortfalls of statistics, Mr. Weiss and Ms. Stevens said Chilmark School’s MCAS results would be examined closely and steps taken to address students’ problem areas.

“We do look closely at the scores, however, and all schools will produce a report that details what happened, what its significance might be and how we can use the data to modify instruction for individual students and groups,” Mr. Weiss said. “These reports are due to us by the end of the month.”

Ms. Stevens, who was appointed head of Chilmark School in May 2009, said students are evaluated with a variety of early school assessments and most are right on track.

“If there are ones that aren’t, they would receive extra help to address that,” she said. “We do what we can to provide more intensive services, for example, to help a student retain more information or to learn ways to reduce test anxiety. Some kids know the information but don’t test well, because they get very stressed.”

An educationally rich environment

The cost of providing all services, including special education, for all students on Martha’s Vineyard is a major portion of town budgets. And the list of special education mandates from state and Federal education departments keeps growing.

In 2010, the state’s total expenditure per pupil averaged $13,055, according to the DESE website. On Martha’s Vineyard, the 2010 per-pupil cost was $20,821 for Edgartown School, $17,517 for Oak Bluffs School, $19,127 for Tisbury School, $23,439 for the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School District, and $22,275 for the Up-Island Regional School District, which includes the Chilmark and West Tisbury Schools together.

The Island’s public schools also maintain a low student/teacher ratio, which DESE determines by dividing the October 1 student enrollment by the total number of full-time equivalent teachers.

The state average student/teacher ratio for the 2010-11 school year was 13.9 students to 1 teacher. At Chilmark School, it was 10.5 to 1; Edgartown School, 8.6 to 1; Oak Bluffs School, 9.4 to 1; Tisbury School, 8.7 to 1; and West Tisbury School, 8.1 to 1.

Falling short of progress targets

MCAS results released by DESE on September 20 showed that while student performance in Martha’s Vineyard schools continues to improve, most of the schools failed to meet the state’s adequate yearly progress (AYP) targets in at least one subject area.

MCAS scores are used to determine a school’s AYP, which measures the extent to which a student group demonstrates proficiency in ELA and mathematics progress towards meeting federally required annual performance targets under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. The NCLB law sets 2014 as the year by which all students in public schools must achieve scores of advanced or proficient.

However, the Obama administration announced in August it is creating a waiver program that would allow states to be exempt from that requirement. To qualify, states must sign on to the President’s education overhaul agenda, which Massachusetts did last year by securing $250 million from the federal Race to the Top program.

AYP data for elementary schools includes factors such as target numbers for test participation, attendance, and state performance and improvement targets. AYP is determined by both aggregate and subgroup scores. Subgroups consist of 20 or more students in categories such as special education, low income, and limited English proficiency, and by race/ethnicity.

Chilmark School showed a decline in its improvement rating in both ELA and math for the first time since 2004. Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and West Tisbury schools had a combination of improvement ratings of “no change” or “on target” for the two subject areas.

Schools that make AYP in a subject for all student groups for two or more consecutive years are assigned to the positive “No Status” category. All of the Martha’s Vineyard schools, with the exception of Oak Bluffs School, received a “No Status” NCLB accountability designation, which includes ratings for performance and improvement.

Oak Bluffs School received a “corrective action” status and “improvement year 1” status for subgroups in math.