By many measures the Oak Bluffs elementary school is having an excellent year.
There are 410 pupils at the school, which is up seven on last year, an anomaly on an Island where enrollment is steadily shrinking. Nearly 50 students are there by school choice, that is, children whose parents have elected to send them to the Oak Bluffs School from other towns.
And judging by aggregate scores, the school performed impressively on the 2008 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). For English language arts the school scored 90.8 and 80.3 in math. Both numbers are more than five points above the state targets.
“People think it’s a very good school,” said principal Laury Binney, sitting in his office after school earlier this week.
Looked at another way, though, the school is in trouble.
Having under-performed in both low income and special education subgroups for the second year running in MCAS scores, the school has been identified by the state for improvement.
The status results in a variety of punitive measures. Parents must be notified of the school’s accountability status. The school must revise its school improvement plan. Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss must work with the Oak Bluffs school committee to provide a written report on budget allocation.
Finally, 10 per cent of that school’s title one spending must go toward teacher training.
Schools which receive title one funds (Oak Bluffs does) must offer parents of all students in the school the option to transfer their children to another school in the district not identified for improvement; however, this does not apply to the Island, where school choice is already available and where most elementary schools constitute their own district.
With state targets in English and math due to go up more than five points next year, the school is one of the 50 per cent of Massachusetts schools that face continuing punitive action from the state.
“I’m kind of holding my breath actually. I want to be optimistic because that’s my nature,” said Mr. Binney, “I worry there’s so much emphasis on this instruction and it’s not something that every kid responds to in a good way. It makes absolutely no sense.”
A total of 22 per cent of the students in Oak Bluffs have an education plan. Though scores improved among these students, the special education subgroup was below state targets for the second consecutive year.
“The state raised the bar to a place to where it makes no sense and is inherently unfair,” he said.
Mr. Binney said that preparing students for the test — in the past, special education students were offered scribes and readers for exams — has gotten more difficult. However, the practice was deemed unfair to less well-funded schools and banned by the state. While Mr. Binney agrees with the principle behind the move he said it inevitably set the school back.
State title one funding kicks in if more than 15 per cent of students at a school are low income. Mr. Binney said Oak Bluffs hovers around 18 or 19 per cent and as a result has a full-time title one teacher in Celeste Wilcoxson, whose position is funded by the state. To the extent that the position is funded by title one, Ms. Wilcoxson can teach either math or English students whose MCAS grades fall into the title one category (below the average but above special education level). At Oak Bluffs Ms. Wilcoxson teaches only reading, an area the school identified as a priority.
Title one funding has been drying up steadily for the past few years.
“It’s been dropping precipitously down, down, down,” said Mr. Binney.
Additionally Oak Bluffs’ new designation as a school flagged for improvement means that 10 per cent of the funding must go toward professional development ($6,500 to $7,500 according to Mr. Weiss), which means additional training for Ms. Wilcoxson.
Mr. Binney said the state mandate amounts to the school being fined for its scores.
Oak Bluffs used to have two title one teachers, and until last year Ms. Wilcoxson’s salary was 100 per cent funded by the program. This year it is down to 75 per cent.
“Next year it’ll probably be 50,” he said. “It’s an unfunded or at least underfunded mandate.”
What is the school doing about it?
“We’ve identified each kid in the needs-improvement category and are devising action plans,” said Mr Binney. “We’re paying real close attention to this.”
The school runs Response To Intervention — a federal assessment program which starts at the elementary level and is designed to help children assimilate before being identified as requiring a personal education plan.
“Once a kid gets an ed plan it stays with them,” he said. “If they get help at an early age it can help to be successful in a regular class.”
Mr. Weiss said reducing special education numbers is an Islandwide priority.
“It’s high, comparatively,” he said of the Oak Bluffs numbers, adding that the state average hovers around 15 per cent.
Administrators also plan to analyze a breakdown of results and identify trends where the school should improve.
“What kind of questions did they break down on? Perhaps it was the open response questions if it’s a writing issue,” Mr. Binney said.
“You have to take the pulse of enough kids to tell you about how to get over the next hurdle. But you take 15 kids and you need 15 different approaches. It takes a good teacher.”
Mr. Binney said focusing time and funding on the special education designation means losing it elsewhere.
“All the time spent doing this, that’s something else that has to go,” he said. Complaints about the system can only be voiced politically, he said.
“Teddy Kennedy helped design No Child Left Behind; he understands the problems with it,” he said. “Perhaps with a new administration next year he’ll help make changes.”
For some children, he said, MCAS testing is not the proper measure of their learning.
“You see them, they tense up — at times we are at pains to even administer the thing. True teaching is a beautiful thing when you see it happen; watching a kid crumble and cry [is not]. Education is a rounded idea, it’s complex, and it’s not just about passing a test. It’s about igniting a passion for learning.
“At fifth grade it’s 16 to 18 hours of testing each spring; it’s significantly more testing than the bar or medical exams. They’re not even close to the hours we put on 11-year-olds. Quantitatively it’s just bizarre.”
He concluded: “Testing has a place. It gives us information. There’s a saying — you can’t fatten a pig by weighing it.”