MCAS improvement inspires higher standard
The question is whether the cumbersome, demanding and relentless MCAS testing regimen has led to real improvement in the performance of educators and their students. For James Peyser, the chairman of the state board of education, there is no question about the answer.
"We have largely succeeded in ensuring that all high school graduates in the Commonwealth acquire certain basic skills in reading, writing and math," Mr. Peyser said this week. Mr. Peyser commented after the release of state MCAS test results that show important and widespread improvement in student performance across the state, including here among Martha's Vineyard students. The improvement is not uniform. Some schools have recorded little progress, some none at all. But, in general, the latest edition of the tests shows progress for at least a majority of students. Indeed, this year, 59 percent of tenth graders statewide scored significantly higher than the threshold standard for proficiency, which is a score of 220.
So, chairman Peyser has moved, and the board of education has agreed, to raise the standard, the first time it has done so in six years. For the class of 2010, a score of 240 will be needed for a student in grade 10 to be judged proficient. A score of 220 or lower will invoke a schedule of remedial courses to earn a diploma.
To explain the stiffened requirement, Mr. Peyser said, "We have not yet ensured that all high school graduates are ready for success in college or the global labor market. We must set our sights higher."
Indeed we must, and despite withering and relentless criticism, MCAS testing, which is hardly a perfect tool, has nevertheless raised standards and inspired teachers and education leaders to inspire their charges. The two ways in which MCAS testing has been a successful influence on education state-wide, but particularly on Martha's Vineyard, are reflected in comments by two Island principals, who were asked by Times writer Janet Hefler to discuss the results for their schools.
Paul Dulac, principal of the Edgartown School, described the usefulness of the MCAS as a diagnostic and curriculum improvement tool.
"We're filling in holes where our math program is weak, such as fractions for grades five and six, where it doesn't match up with MCAS scores," Mr. Dulac told The Times. "We're working in teams and looking at individual students' scores, so we can prescribe instruction for each student in areas in which they need help. We're in a very good position now to react to the data and improve, particularly in the areas of math and writing. In the past we had our own curriculum, so we just have to turn some things around so that the state frameworks will become more of a focus in our curriculum area. I'm very confident our kids can get it done."
Aligning curriculum across the schools in the six Vineyard towns, as well as across the schools state-wide, has been a significant contributor to the improvements that MCAS has inspired and that test results have documented. Tailoring education efforts to the documented individual needs of students is another.
But, after all the testing is done and the analysis of scores is transformed into plans for action in each school, the responsibility for implementing these plans falls to teachers. Laury Binney, the Oak Bluffs School principal, gives credit where it is due: "There are so many variables that go into why a school does well, but the most important one is just good teaching. I'm really proud of the folks here because they work so hard at it," Mr. Binney said.