A tidal wave of numbers, percentages and statistics - the results of last year's state MCAS test - came washing over Vineyard schools, challenging school leaders to avoid comparisons and identify trends that show where teachers are getting it right and where they might be falling short.

"I like to look at the overall summary and see how we are doing as a whole system," said Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash. "I don't like to compare school to school."

Getting a bead on the big picture, Mr. Cash pointed to high rates of literacy among the youngest test-takers, last year's third graders. In nearly every Island school, somewhere between 70 and 80 per cent of the third graders scored as proficient readers, exceeding the state average of 67 per cent.

"We're getting off to a good start with early literacy," said Mr. Cash. "It's always been a focus here on the Vineyard."

The other highlight of student performance on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) came from the regional high school, where last year's 10th graders managed to hold steady in both English and math.

Mr. Cash said he was impressed with average raw scores in the 240 range posted by high school students. In English, 49 per cent of 10th graders reached the proficient range. In math, 36 per cent were proficient and 25 per cent advanced.

"We're proud of the kids, to see them step up into the advanced levels," said regional high school principal Peg Regan.

Students in grades three, four, six, seven, eight and 10 all took at least one portion of the MCAS test last year. Tests in just one subject area can last up to three days, requiring students to sit for more than 20 hours of testing in some cases.

While it was easy to spot strengths on both ends of the age spectrum, the results in the elementary and middle grades were more varied.

Across the board, eighth graders taking the social studies tests are still lagging, with only a handful producing test scores that are proficient and almost none advanced.

The state curriculum frameworks have been a moving target, said Mr. Cash, and scores across the state have been abysmal. "But still, it's not good," he added. "We're not doing well in U.S. history, civics and government, things that are absolutely essential in the era we're living in. We need to step up the pace and make sure our students are getting a well-rounded dose of history, economics and civics."

Mr. Cash said that given the strong reading levels in the third grade, he expected to see slightly higher scores in English from the fourth graders. "We do a little better than the state average, and in some districts, we do quite well," he said.

Last year, fourth-grade students at the Oak Bluffs School racked up strong numbers in English. There was no fourth grader in the failure or warning level, and 26 per cent scored in the advanced tier. Just under half came in at the proficient level.

The temptation when looking at MCAS results is to compare this year's results to the previous year. West Tisbury school principal Dr. Elaine Pace yesterday told the Gazette that comparing the two years is a pitfall that won't yield any useful information.

"There's no validity to that, because it's a completely different group of kids. I try to communicate that accurately to parents who look at those scores and want to compare," she said. "In order for comparisons to be valid, you would need to look at the same group of kids. If the same group went up three years in a row, you'd know we're doing something right."

Indeed, Ms. Pace and Mr. Cash both said MCAS is a more useful tool when teachers can analyze the results and see where they may be failing to teach a particular content area effectively. They insist that this practice is not "teaching to the test" but rather identifying areas of the state curriculum that need bolstering.

While Ms. Pace was critical of comparing scores from previous years, Mr. Cash specifically cited a trend of improvement in fourth-grade math scores - but was concerned about low math scores posted by last year's sixth graders.

"Our scores need to be improved getting into the middle school range," he said.

Again, the key for teachers will be to pinpoint certain areas of math - for example, geometry, probability and statistics - that need more instruction. "There are certain areas where students are proficient in the 50 per cent range," Mr. Cash said. "We need to get into the 60s and 70s and beyond."

Students in grade seven took only the English portion of the MCAS test. They performed better than the state averages, and in both Edgartown and West Tisbury, roughly three-fourths of the students scored in the proficient range.

Still, Mr. Cash would like to see higher scores that reflect the emphasis placed on language arts in the Island's kindergarten through fifth grades.

"In composition development, we need to continue the good work that teachers have done in the K-to-five level. We're not as high as we need to be here for a highly sophisticated and literary society," he said.

As for eighth-grade math scores, Mr. Cash again looked at overall raw averages and cited the 240 figure as a critical threshold. Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury schools were solidly in that category. The Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School was the lowest with a raw average score of 228. Both the Edgartown and Tisbury schools fell just short of the 240 mark.

"Some are not as high as I'd like," said Mr. Cash.

Overall, school leaders continued to hedge over MCAS. "The main issue for me is that I think we're having too much testing for kids," said Mr. Cash.

But Mrs. Regan said that MCAS has "lifted everything from courses to the curriculum. It's raised everyone's expectations."