Edgartown School works hard to meet rising MCAS standards
No teachers or administrators on the Island wanted their school to be the first to fall short of the MCAS test standards set by the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly known as "No Child Left Behind." That distinction fell to the Edgartown School this October, when the Department of Education announced that the school's composite math score came in at 68.0 points, just under the state's target of 68.7.
It would be difficult to overstate the impact that tiny shortfall has had inside the Edgartown School over the last month and a half.
When district superintendent James Weiss met with the Edgartown faculty and full school committee in an unprecedented 7:30 am forum on Nov. 29, the main topic was supposed to be the sudden resignation of principal G. Paul Dulac after less than five months on the job.
State standards in math and English will rise steeply until 2014, when 100 percent of Massachusetts students must be proficient. Graph is from the state Department of Education web site.
Still, as difficult as the loss of a principal has been for the school staff, it didn't take long for MCAS to monopolize the discussion.
The high-stakes test has been the elephant in the room for every teacher and administrator in Edgartown since the school learned that this spring, it had missed the state benchmark called AYP, or Adequate Yearly Progress, for math.
The bar is rising
Superintendent Weiss discussed that standard at the early-morning meeting and tried to put it into perspective for the faculty.
"I look at all the test scores across the Island," he said, "and right now you're the only one that hasn't met Adequate Yearly Progress - in one area. But the other schools are not going to be far behind you, as that bar continues to rise. Each year it goes up a number of points in both math and reading, and it becomes harder and harder to reach that target. If you look over time, this doesn't bode well for our schools, and really for schools across the whole commonwealth."
In his talk with faculty and parents, Superintendent Weiss said the bar that MCAS sets is going to be continually rising. "In the next years, you're going to have to get from where you are now to 100 percent proficient - a goal that's worthy of working toward, but truly impossible to reach. I don't believe there will be any school in the state that reaches 100 percent proficient."
Mr. Weiss quickly added, "But that's our goal."
Even in the short term, the goal is daunting: The state has divided the years leading up to 2014 into two-year cycles, and this was the last year of Cycle IV. Next year begins Cycle V, and the state's Adequate Yearly Progress target jumps from 68.7 points to 76.5.
In a letter dated Dec. 8, addressed to parents and guardians, Mr. Dulac addressed the school's math deficiencies and outlined some of the school's efforts to boost math proficiency. He said that more changes will be coming.
He wrote, "Congratulations and thank you to all our math teachers for the extra work they have put in over the last several weeks. This group of dedicated teachers has worked in teams to discuss students' work in math and have come up with a plan to help our children improve their skills and abilities in the field of mathematics. You will be hearing about some changes occurring in the Edgartown School related to your child's math instruction. I know you will be supportive of these changes, as they will positively impact your child's ability in math. In selected cases we will be adding math time to your child's schedule. In other situations, you may be informed of math opportunities for your child either before or after school. We are excited with our plan and its potential for success. I ask your support in our efforts to improve your child's math achievement. Don't forget to work to provide your child with math games and number activities at home. These kinds of fun activities can really make a difference in your child's understanding of math concepts."
Carrot and hammer
At last week's meeting, teachers in Edgartown told Mr. Weiss they were concerned. One said Mr. Dulac had warned her that failure to improve could lead to a state takeover.
Responding, the superintendent was vague on the details.
"Based on the MCAS test," Mr. Weiss said, "a school becomes a school in need of improvement if, in two consecutive years, it does not make Adequate Yearly Progress in a given subject area. You did not make Adequate Yearly Progress in math this year. If that were to happen again next year, you would be a school in need of improvement, and certain sanctions and things from the state would come into play."
And again, Mr. Weiss urged the teachers to look at the bright side.
"Yes," he said, "there is a hammer, but there's also a carrot out there. Let's not look at the hammer, let's look at the carrot."
To explore the consequences of becoming a "School Identified for Improvement" is to venture into the forest of documents published by the state Department of Education. In fact, spelling out the full range of consequences for schools that fall short of the AYP standard takes eight pages of DOE charts and diagrams. The short answer, used by journalists who have to worry about readers' eyes glazing over, is that a School Identified for Improvement has to do three things:
- Notify the parents of each child of the school's status.
- Revise a document which all schools must have, the "School Improvement Plan."
- Provide "Technical Assistance," which basically means putting the resources in place to actually implement the School Improvement Plan.
If schools add years without pulling their scores up to the state standards, they face further sanctions. In the first tier, called "Corrective Action," sanctioned schools must take at least one of several steps, among them:
- Revise their curriculum.
- Extend the length of the school year or school day.
- Replace those members of the school staff "who are deemed relevant to the school not making adequate progress."
- "Appoint a receiver or trustee to administer the affairs of the district in place of the superintendent and school board."
Finally, schools where corrective action has not pulled scores up to the AYP standards - and remember, these standards are ramping steeply toward the goal of 100 percent proficiency in 2014 - face the ultimate level of sanctions. This is the stage, called "Restructuring," to which Mr. Dulac was referring to when he said the state can actually take over the Edgartown School.
According to the Department of Education, the sanctions facing a school in this phase include the following:
- "Reconstitute the school by replacing all or most of the school staff who are relevant to the school's inability to make adequate progress (this may include the principal).
- "Enter into a contract with an entity, such as a private management company, with a demonstrated record of effectiveness, to operate the school as a public school.
- "Turn the operation of the school over to the State Educational Agency (SEA), if the state agrees.
- "Re-open the school as a public charter school."
Across Massachusetts this year, 130 school districts have been identified for failure to meet the state's AYP standards. Twenty-six have already graduated to the "Corrective Action" stage.
Glimpse of the future
If Mr. Weiss's predictions are right, Vineyard educators now have their first example, in the Edgartown School, of what they can expect in years ahead as they fail, one by one, to meet the standard their superintendent calls "truly impossible to reach."
Inside the Edgartown School, the focus on MCAS has intensified. Teachers are printing out test items for analysis and for drills with students. After school hours, committees of teachers and administrators are meeting weekly and sometimes daily to discuss strategies for the spring round of testing.
Members of the Edgartown school committee, at the Nov. 29 forum, were sympathetic and expressed their support for the teaching staff.
David Rossi, chairman of the committee, noted that his wife is a teacher, and said to the faculty: "We know your job is getting tougher and tougher. We do appreciate what you do - we know where things get done."
Committee member Susan Mercier told the teachers: "I'm daily amazed at the work you do. I want you all to know that I am honored to sit up here for you. We're going to go on, and we're going to move forward."
Veteran committee member Les Baynes said to the staff: "We're only as good as you. We have had a hard five years at this school, but we haven't missed a beat. We're going to build upon what we have here, and we really do appreciate you."
A 2004 study commissioned by MassPartners, a coalition of several educational associations and union groups critical of the new law and the focus on testing, predicted that even in a best-case scenario, three-quarters of all Massachusetts schools will fail to meet AYP standards between now and 2014.
When the federal No Child Left Behind Act comes up for Congressional reauthorization next year, legislators may review the law that declares every student in America must be able to read and do math at grade level by 2014. U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings recently told USA Today that she hopes the law isn't modified. "I talk about No Child Left Behind like Ivory soap: It's 99.9% pure or something," she said. "There's not much needed in the way of change."