MCAS Scores Stay Even; High School Math Rises for Fourth Year Running

By RACHEL KOVAC

Vineyard MCAS scores remained relatively flat overall this year, although math scores at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School and West Tisbury eighth grade rocketed well above state averages.

Scores for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam were released by the Department of Education Wednesday, pushing educators into a tailspin as they rushed to analyze the results for their students, teachers and communities.

Wide variations in scores make it difficult to spot trends, but highlights from the Vineyard include third grade reading scores that show high proficiency and sixth grade math scores that show need for improvement.

"They become a focus of a lot of energy," Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss said yesterday of the MCAS scores. "We're not just looking at the numbers. We want to drill down deeper and do item analysis. We want to look at those things our youngsters do well and things our youngsters don't do so well."

Massachusetts uses a four-tier scoring system for the MCAS exams. Students who score in the top three tiers - advanced, proficient and in need of improvement - pass the exam, while students who fail fall into the fourth tier.

Mirroring schools across the state, the Vineyard posted uneven results. State officials issued a call this week for schools to push for all students to move into the proficient category on the MCAS.

The MCAS was first administered in 1998, but this is only the third year that students must pass the test in order to graduate from high school. Students in the third through eighth grades Islandwide also take MCAS subject tests. Their scores are used by Vineyard educators to gauge student proficiency in the context of the state's prescribed curriculum.

The MCAS exams are also used as a tool by the state to demonstrate compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which calls on schools to show annual academic progress with their students. Under the federal law, all students must be proficient in reading and math by 2014. On MCAS, proficient is 20 points above "needs improvement," which is a passing score. The federal government requires that all students improve by a certain margin every year, known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

Schools that fail to meet the AYP or schools with subgroups that fail AYP for two consecutive years are put into the category of needs improvement. Schools then have two years to improve their scores with help and money from the state.

The Vineyard has little to worry about in terms of faltering scores. Most of the Island schools post passing scores that exceed state averages, and fewer students are scoring in the failing category across the board.

At regional high school, for the fourth year in a row 10th grade math scores have seen an improvement. This year 79 per cent of students placed in the advanced or proficient category, up nine per cent from last year. The scores are well above the state average of 62 per cent.

"I attribute it to the style of instruction in the math department," said high school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan. Reacting to the posted MCAS scores this week, Mrs. Regan called them lovely. She also said: "It [math] is very hands-on in the 10th grade. Instead of just giving kids proofs and problems they have incorporated technology."

While the math scores have continued to improve over the years, high school English scores remain stagnant. While they are above the state average for proficient, Vineyard high school students have failed to make any significant improvements over the years.

"We are doing a good job in English and always have," Mrs. Regan said. "There wasn't the dramatic need to change instructional practices. But what we have found is that 61 per cent of our special education students are in either the failing or needs improvement categories. That is unacceptable. We are beginning to find we have hidden illiteracy in the school."

Mrs. Regan said high school teachers are not reading teachers, so students often slip by. She said the staff needs to probe deeper into how content area teachers can help improve reading. Students are entering the high school with insufficient reading skills, she said.

Even with solid MCAS scores the faculty at the high school is not complacent, Mrs. Regan said. She said the next faculty meeting will address reading and ways to continue improving.

In the primary schools things looked a little different. Third graders at all schools posted top scores in reading; 70 per cent of students at most schools reached the top category.

Once again at the West Tisbury School eighth grade science students ranked the highest in the state for their performance. Twenty-five percent of students scored in the advanced category, compared to four per cent statewide. Only two per cent of West Tisbury eighth graders ranked in the failing category.

In most categories students showed little change - ranking high in the proficient categories, while staying low in the failing category. Mr. Weiss said one area of concern centers on sixth grade math scores. Sixth grade math students ranked high in the needs improvement category, with few students scoring in the advanced category. There has been a downward trend over the past four years.

"The one thing I'm looking at very closely is overall trends," Mr. Weiss said. "I know from talking with administrators that last year they focused a lot of their energy on fourth grade math and it seems to have made some difference. I'm concerned this year with the level of failure in sixth grade math."

Mr. Weiss also has some worries about the Edgartown School, where improvement dropped 6.9 per cent in English and 2.9 per cent in math. At the West Tisbury School improvement also dropped 2.7 per cent in English and 4.4 per cent in math. No other schools showed a drop of more than .6 per cent, and most showed increased improvement.

"That's a cause for concern," Mr. Weiss said. "We need to ask are we giving our students an equal opportunity to succeed when they get to the high school? One of the things our staff is trying to coordinate is curriculum," he said.

Mr. Weiss said he is not considering something as drastic as the Texas approach where every student in each grade, in each class would be on the same page on the same day, but he wants to make sure the outcome in the end is consistent.

"I call it a planned, ongoing and systematic curriculum," he said. "How a given teacher or school implements it in their curriculum can be different."

This is the last year students will take different subject tests at different grade levels. Starting this year students in grades five through eight will be tested in English and math. This is due to a transition across the commonwealth to meet the No Child Left Behind requirements.

"We want to see a steady improvement," Mr. Weiss said. "Not everyone is going to be at the same point at the same time. If they are making improvement toward those targets that's something very important to us."