MCAS scores show achievement and growth

Martha's Vineyard Regional High School — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Results released Friday morning from the 2013 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exams show that Martha’s Vineyard schools continue to earn high performance level ratings.

At the elementary school level, Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) continued to demonstrate appropriate progress in narrowing the achievement gap between different groups of students in English/language arts (ELA), math, and science and technology. Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) fell short of its target goal, however, in math.

“We’re very pleased with the elementary school scores,” superintendent of schools James Weiss said in a phone conversation with The Times Friday morning. “They continue to show ongoing growth in all of our schools.”

Under a new accountability system put into effect last year, all schools with sufficient data are classified into levels one to five, with the highest performing in level one.

All of the MVPS elementary schools achieved Level 1 status again this year, meaning they were successful in narrowing the proficiency gap between different groups of students. The designation is based on a school’s own progress and growth targets, relative to other schools across the state that serve the same or similar grades.

Mr. Weiss said that although he has not had the opportunity to review all of the individual schools’ data in detail yet, the work that is being done at the elementary school level appears to be paying off.

“Right now we know, for example, that Oak Bluffs School is doing better than 91 percent of the schools in its category, and that’s outstanding,” he said. “And the others across the Island are all in the 80 to 89 range, which is really very good.”

Tisbury School was named one of the highest performers in the state, according to MCAS rankings prepared and published by the Boston Globe on Monday. The school ranked fourth in fourth-grade ELA scores, with 45 percent of the students scoring in the advanced category.

The regional high school dropped to Level 2 status this year. Although the school achieved appropriate progress in ELA, it did not demonstrate enough progress in narrowing the achievement gap in proficiency in math among student subgroups, Mr. Weiss said.

Determination for the five school levels in Massachusetts is based on data reported in two categories, one for “all students” and one for a “high needs” group. It includes students categorized in least one of three subgroups, which are low income, students with disabilities, and English language learner/former English language learner.

“That’s a concern, however, if you look at what happened at the high school last year: math scores shot up astronomically,” Mr. Weiss said. “The state looks back and sets a target. The whole notion is to narrow the gap between the large group of students and the individual subgroups. We made progress, but not enough to narrow the gap because of the high progress we made the previous year.”

Mr. Weiss said that over the next few weeks, staff at each school will analyze the MCAS results in more detail and that the Island community can expect additional information.

Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School (MVPCS) director Bob Moore also spoke with The Times Friday morning about his school’s MCAS results.

“We are pleased across the board how each of our groups of students improved from last year to this year in all the areas of English, math, and science,” Mr. Moore said. “We’re still working hard in the area of mathematics; we want to maintain our traditional good results in English language arts, but our math results have improved and we’re going to continue working on them, as well.

“We acknowledge we’re a level two school still. But we also acknowledge that we have made improvement in that area from last year to this year, in terms of meeting our targets.”

What’s behind the numbers

The accountability system reports a school percentile for schools with at least four years of MCAS data. The number indicates a school’s overall performance in narrowing the proficiency gap, based on its own targets, relative to other schools in the same school type. Edgartown School is in the 85th percentile, Oak Bluffs in the 92nd, Tisbury in the 82nd, West Tisbury School in the 88th, the Charter School in the 72nd, and MVRHS in the 49th.

In February 2012 Massachusetts was one of the first ten states granted a flexibility waiver by President Barack Obama, which eliminated the Federal provision of the No Child Left Behind law that requires all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Instead, the state set a new goal to basically cut in half the number of students who are not passing the MCAS by the 2016 to 2017 school year. A new performance measure, the progress and performance index (PPI), uses a 100-point system to report district and school progress towards narrowing proficiency gaps in ELA, math, and science, and student growth in ELA and math. Each school has a target for progress and growth.

A school with 100 points is above target, 75 points on target, 50 points improved target, and 25 points, no change. Each district or school receives both an annual PPI and cumulative PPI.

The cumulative PPI is an average of a group’s annual PPIs for four years. It is used to measure whether a school is on track towards narrowing its own proficiency gap. The cumulative PPI is a measure of a school’s performance relative to its own target, regardless of the performance of other schools. The state picked 2011 as the baseline for comparing this year’s scores for all schools.

High school perspective

The regional high school came disappointingly close, at 74 points, to meeting its cumulative target for all students, principal Stephen Nixon told The Times in an interview in his office Monday. Mr. Nixon said school administrators and staff need to look at why the target growth trended down for the high needs subgroup, in particular.

“We have high achievement, and 50 percent growth, which is why our percentile is at 49 percent,” he explained. “We’re getting better, but we’re not closing the gap fast enough.”

Mr. Nixon and guidance department director Michael McCarthy said the state chose 2011 as the baseline for comparing this year’s MCAS scores for all schools, which happened to be one of the high school’s strongest years.

“We’re not up to that growth level yet, but I’m proud of our kids and staff,” Mr. Nixon said.

Another factor that weighed in the regional high school’s level 2 designation was low MCAS participation. Nine students did not take the tests. Mr. Nixon said the state requires 95 percent participation, so the cut-off was eight for the high school.

Of the nine students who did not participate, six were deemed by their doctors as medically incapable of taking the tests due to injury or illness, Mr. McCarthy said. Another student who did not take the tests had just arrived in the country and spoke no English. Unfortunately, the state does not take those types of circumstances into account when measuring MCAS participation.

Mr. McCarthy complimented the majority of students that did participate and gave it their best effort. “We would not want this to ever reflect poorly on the students, because they’re a strong class that did very well,” he said, in reference to the school’s level 2 designation. That is the message that both he and Mr. Nixon said they don’t want to get lost in looking at the MCAS results.

The next step is to look at the data in depth, to see whether there are trends or a particular subgroup of students that is struggling in some area, Mr. Nixon said.

“We’ve also started to look at MCAS scores from the past, and have put things in place for kids coming into the high school,” he added. “We instituted an MCAS math and English course for kids that have struggled in those areas in the past, to get them extra help before the test comes.

“Our scores are high, but sometimes it comes down to one or two kids. If so, we need to find out why and help them make it. We have to focus on every kid.”

Mr. Nixon said that each department — math, English, and science — will do its own MCAS analysis, question by question, based on the new data. They will look to see if there are any patterns in questions missed, and at the standards and skills attached to the various questions to improve instruction, if needed.