Tisbury School principal Richie Smith can describe exactly the moment he learned how his students performed in the annual Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test: it was August 6, early morning, in his kitchen, on the telephone and he did cartwheels.
“Well, it was more jumps,” he revised. “But I react that way every year when I find out we made AYP.”
The test results were released publicly on Tuesday, when it became clear that the Tisbury School not only had made Adequate Yearly Progress, the federal benchmark of constant improvement. Because of the school’s success in closing the achievement gap — that is, improving things for the lowest-performing students — Tisbury also had made Gov. Deval Patrick’s new list of Commendation Schools. It was the only school on the Vineyard to do so.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires annual increases in state standardized test scores; more than half of schools in Massachusetts failed to meet the required increase. But Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss said yesterday, “All our schools are really on the right path.” An analysis by his assistant, Laurie Halt, shows that the students in every Vineyard school overall performed well above the state average, earning high or very high performance ratings.
The Edgartown School, which last year did not make AYP for all of its low-income and special education students, did this year. The Oak Bluffs School, where students in those same groups had failed to meet the target in English for three years, made it this year; in math, the Oak Bluffs subgroups met the target last year but not this year. It takes two consecutive years of improvement for a school to return to good standing.
But at the Tisbury School, Mr. Smith was particularly proud. More than 90 students at his school are on free or reduced lunch programs, meaning that 30 per cent of the school population is considered low-income. It was these students, whose scores are tracked in a discreet category of the MCAS results, who showed tremendous growth from 2009 to this year. In math, their scores improved more than 10 per cent, and in English and language arts, more than four per cent. The student body overall also improved by 2.3 per cent.
Principal Smith attributes this “fantastic result” to “teachers’ hard work and their dedication to working with children who are in need of extra support.”
He calls the MCAS tests “a huge stressor,” but extremely useful. The tests are a true indicator of the state’s curriculum frameworks, he said. “The MCAS data and results show us where we are in our frameworks so we can make sure a child is learning what is standard.”
And those standards are high, Mr. Smith said, pointing to College Board results released on Monday showing that Massachusetts public high school students made greater gains on the math SAT exam than any other state over the past decade, while African American students in this state now lead their peers nationwide.
As part of MCAS, the state also provides schools with detailed information about each student’s performance on each question, which range from multiple choice to open response to composition.
“If you use data properly, all I can see is good coming from [MCAS],” Mr. Smith said. “The information is so informative and it shapes what we do in instruction, to make a blueprint of how to help and support each student.”
That is exactly what Mr. Stevens did at Edgartown. “Last year we did not make AYP because of two subgroups,” he said. “We had some kids who were in need of special attention in reading and math. We devised a plan last year to look at their scores, to assign them on the caseloads of remedial math and reading teachers, to work specifically on their weaknesses and test-taking skills. And the result stands for itself.
“You find the kids that need the help, you give them the help, you monitor their progress and that’s the result, they make gains.”
Mr. Stevens said the support is schoolwide, from teachers and parents at the forefront, to kitchen, custodial, secretarial and aid staff. All, he said, already are using the data released this week to prepare for the coming year. “We work the data pretty heavily,” he said. “Based on MCAS, we can see it looks like these few students need a little extra help in, for instance, fractions. So we plan to group them together and give them the extra attention they need when fractions come up in math this year.”
Mr. Weiss said, “Teachers are grasping the reality that this is an important measure,” along with other testing and assessments.
“What we try to do is look at every youngster as an individual; we look at the test as a broad measure showing us what his strengths and weaknesses are and work student by student, grade by grade at each school,” he said, adding:
“But it’s not as though if we just do drill-and-kill everyone will do wonderful; they won’t.”
Some critics of the No Child Left Behind Act, which sets the AYP, worry that it is so focussed on getting the lowest-scoring kids to improve that stronger students will get short shrift.
But Mr. Stevens disagrees. “The test itself challenges all kids,” he said.
He also points to new MCAS data called student growth reports. These track students statewide who score similarly one year, and compare how those students improve compared to others who began from the same place, over time. This is the first year parents will receive this individual report for their children.
Last year this was available at the school and district level. Schools can compare their progress with other schools in the state with the same percentage of free and reduced lunch students or minority or special education students, Mr. Stevens said, to get a sense of how well kids are learning. “Our student growth percentile scores are strong,” he said.
At the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter school, director Robert Moore said this marks the fifth year in a row that his school has made AYP.
“I’m really pleased about the math trends our school has shown, particularly in the middle school level. I think the results show that work is paying off,” Mr. Moore said.
English-language arts has always been a strength for the charter school. “Our high school scores really came in strong,” Mr. Moore said. “Over 90 per cent scored advanced or proficient in both ELA and math.”
Complete MCAS scores may be viewed on The Boston Globe Web site, boston.com.