MCAS score gains elude two schools
Preliminary results from the 2007 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exams released on Oct. 4 show continued improvements in many grade levels in Island schools. Tisbury School received special recognition by the Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE) as one of the state's top improving schools for its increase of 32 percentage points on the grade eight science and technology test since 2006.
The Edgartown, Tisbury, and Chilmark schools, the regional high school, and the public charter school met target goals for yearly progress in English and math. However, the Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury schools failed to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) on the 2007 tests, because some student subgroup scores did not meet state targets.
Although Edgartown School did not meet its AYP in math last year, the school met its AYP target this year because it showed adequate improvement, despite an overall math score lower than the state's target. Scores rose in the fifth and sixth grades, which were weak areas in 2006, from 70 percent passing the fifth grade math test last year to 81 percent passing this year. Sixth grade scores went from 68 percent passing last year to 89 percent this year. West Tisbury School also showed a high performance rating and above target improvement rating for math scores overall, compared to 2006.
On Tuesday, superintendent of schools James Weiss said that although the MCAS results are preliminary, "I think what happened at Tisbury School is truly a success - their science scores lead the state. In general, I think our students are doing well, and the test results show that."
In a press release last week about MCAS results, the Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE) reported that statewide, students in all grades showed improvement on every test, after two years of flat performance among elementary and middle school students. The preliminary MCAS data posted on the DOE web site showed test scores for grades 3 through 8 and grade 10, as well as AYP reports. More detailed information is due out this week.
(MCAS results are available on the DOE web site www.doe.mass.edu/mcas/)
Last spring, students in grades 3-8 and high school students in grade 10 took exams in English language arts (ELA) and math. Students in grades 5, 8 and 10 were tested in science. Students in the class of 2010 will be the first required to pass a science test - in biology, introductory physics, chemistry, or technology/engineering - in order to graduate. "We chose biology," Mr. Weiss said. Results from the new high school science tests are not available yet.
In order to receive a high school diploma from a Massachusetts high school, state law requires all students to earn a competency determination, as well as meet local graduation requirements. Currently, students must attain a score of "needs improvement" or higher on grade 10 MCAS ELA and math tests. At Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) 98 percent of grade 10 students passed the ELA test and 96 percent the math test, compared to a state average of 95 percent and 91 percent, respectively. The high school earned an AYP performance rating of "very high" for both.
MVRHS principal Margaret (Peg) Regan told the school committee on Sept. 10 that although the high school met its AYP goals and scores went up in reading and math this year, the school may reach a plateau at some point. In the meantime, she said, teachers are working more closely with special education students and English as second language students, with the focus of the school's curriculum on reading.
AYP data includes factors such as target numbers for test participation, attendance for elementary schools, graduation rates for high schools, and state performance and improvement targets. The results may seem contradictory. Although Oak Bluffs School received a performance rating of "very high," its improvement rating declined. West Tisbury School received a performance rating of "very high" and an "on target" improvement rating, despite receiving a failed AYP score.
The reason is that AYP is determined by both aggregate and subgroup scores. Subgroups consist of 20 or more students in categories such as special education, low income, limited English proficiency, and by race/ethnicity. AYP is determined by both the aggregate and subgroup scores.
Both schools did not make AYP in English language arts, due to scores from the special education and low-income subgroups at Oak Bluffs School and the special education subgroup at West Tisbury School.
Mr. Weiss explained that as long as there is one "no" in the AYP under either an aggregate or subgroup category, then the state considers a school as not achieving progress in a content area. Although every Island school had a subgroup that did not meet AYP targets, with the exception of the Chilmark School and the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, adequate improvement demonstrated by the subgroups did not affect the schools' overall AYP rating. The Chilmark School and public charter school did not have subgroups large enough to measure.
In addition to meeting the requirements of the state's education reform law of 1993, the MCAS tests fulfill the requirements of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which requires schools to demonstrate that students are making academic progress. Every year a school's target AYP goes up by a certain number of points, making it harder and harder to meet.
"As you continue to raise the bar and continue to hold every subgroup accountable for that bar, we are going to continue to have difficulties," Mr. Weiss said.
A school that fails to show AYP for two consecutive years in English language arts/reading or math, either in the aggregate or any subgroup, is put on notice by the state to make improvements. Currently, the science and technology test does not count towards a school's AYP.
"There are no consequences for a school that misses AYP in one subject one year," Mr. Weiss explained. "It's two years in a content area. So if this year, the special education students didn't make AYP in English language arts, that's a no, and if next year, the low-income group doesn't make AYP in English, that's another no, and that's two in a row in English language arts, so you're a school in need of improvement."
That designation comes with some consequences, Mr. Weiss said, "which ultimately over a number of years could end up with the school being what they call 'reconstituted,' with the principal and staff being let go and a whole new staff and principal being hired. But that's far down the road."
Students pass an MCAS exam by scoring in the top three of the four scoring categories, advanced, proficient, and needs improvement. Starting with the 2008 MCAS exams, however, tenth grade students will be required to score in the advanced or proficient categories in math and English to graduate. Those who score in the needs-improvement category will be given extra help, with schools required to develop educational plans to help them master writing and problem-solving skills before they graduate.
"Once all of the tests are phased in, in order to pass the MCAS tests, a sophomore in high school is going to have to pass English language arts, math, science and social studies, all four," Mr. Weiss said. "And we believe we should hold our youngsters to a high standard. But that standard as it's constituted in the MCAS may not really be possible for some students."
The federal No Child Left Behind law sets 2014 as the year by which all students in public schools must score in the advanced or proficient categories. The needs improvement score, 20 points below a proficient score, will no longer be acceptable for passing. Schools with students scoring in the needs improvement category will face sanctions ranging from a loss of federal grant money to a state takeover of a school.
"That's not realistic," Mr. Weiss said. "Certainly that's a goal," he said. "We want every child to be proficient - but to hold everybody to that standard and say if you don't make it, there's something wrong - is a real problem."
Mr. Weiss suggested as an analogy, "I would say to you, let's hold General Motors to the same standard, and if you have one recall, your cars don't make adequate progress. We wouldn't have a car company in the world that's acceptable."
When asked what trends or significant information he determines from MCAS results, Mr. Weiss said he looks at the scores of the schools that made AYP and those that didn't, and at whether or not they made their target. "And let's assume they did not make the target, but they're getting closer - that shows progress," he said. "And that, to me, is what I'm after. And then you look at the subgroups and individual students, and you begin to look at patterns over the course of time. So you might track a group of students from third grade to fourth grade to fifth grade, and see whether or not they're making progress.
"One of the factors affecting MCAS results for us is that there are many cases here on the Island where people will move back from some place else in January or February, and their children are tested. So the transient nature of our population does not help us."
Mr. Weiss said it is important to remember that MCAS tests are only one measure used to determine whether or not educational programs are successful. "Unfortunately, everyone is hanging their hat on this measure," he said. "And if MCAS is used as the only measure, it's a false measure. If it's used as one of many, well then, it figures in."
School administrators, principals, and teachers will be analyzing the MCAS results more closely in the next several weeks to determine the areas in instruction and curriculum that may need to be adjusted or strengthened.
Laurie Halt, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, told the MVRHS committee a few weeks ago that she plans to make the school system's MCAS analysis, report, and recommendations available online.