Scores were released this week for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), the annual testing in commonwealth public schools that measures student performance in math, reading and science.

So how did the Vineyard schools do? Across the board the seven Island public schools turned in scores that labeled them high and often very high performers, especially in the Up-Island region, which includes the West Tisbury and Chilmark schools. Two schools did not make their adequate yearly progress (AYP) targets in math and English language arts: Edgartown and Oak Bluffs. These are also the two Island schools that have the largest concentration of special needs and low-income students; poor scores from a handful of students in these subgroups affected school performance records, resulting in failure to make AYP.

Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss said it is important to put the AYP issue in its proper context. “Edgartown and Oak Buffs are the two schools that have issues with AYP, but if you look at the scores of individual cohorts over time, our kids have shown phenomenal progress; it’s just the way the state looks at different groups of kids differently,” he said, adding: “The slower groups — special education groups and low-income groups — have made progress but not enough to keep up with state progress [targets]. Those poor performers bring down the AYP.”

In Oak Bluffs this marks the third year that it has not made its AYP, which means the school will face stricter requirements for how it spends its Title I money, federal funds that go to school districts with students on free and reduced lunch programs. The news is especially difficult because Oak Bluffs is experiencing townwide financial strain and the school has already been forced to make budget cuts twice this year. Mr. Weiss said Oak Bluffs has been using its Title I money (about $50,000) to pay for half the salary of a remedial reading teacher. Now, under the No Child Left Behind federal rules, 30 per cent of the money must go to after-school tutoring and teacher training.

“It doesn’t help at all, that’s for sure. We would have used some of that Title I money to fund that teacher; now we have to use district money,” Mr. Weiss said.

Oak Bluffs School principal Laury Binney agreed. “This unfortunately colors all the progress we have made overall and it’s too bad,” he said. Mr. Binney said most of the subgroups that were not performing made excellent improvement this year. “We’re on an upward trend and that’s where we want to be heading,” he said.

“We know that accountability is important,” he added. “On the other hand we have some kids for whom MCAS, that’s not what they are all about, they are not test-takers. And what we are supposed to be doing here is providing a holistic education for kids based on their strengths and abilities. Every kid is a snowflake.”

This marks the first time in several years that Edgartown did not make its AYP.

Principal John Stevens took a pragmatic view of the results.

“MCAS is a tool we use to measure our progress and I think it does a nice job of providing us with a measurement for kids who don’t do well,” Mr. Stevens said, adding: “We know that we need to pay extra attention to our subgroups of special education and low-income students. We are going to have an organized, intelligent plan to help these kids with remediation.”

There are 320 students in the Edgartown school; 51 students in grades three through eight are low-income (qualifying for the free lunch program), and 47 students have special education needs.

In Oak Bluffs, there are 405 students, with 70 on the free lunch program and 82 with special education needs in grades three through eight.

In both schools a relatively small number of the students in these subgroups performed poorly on MCAS, but because the composite index is reached by averaging (remember your grade point average in high school?) one zero or low score can have a significant effect on the overall score.

Begun in 1998, MCAS tests are administered to public school students in grades three through 10 in the spring each year. Tenth grade students must pass the MCAS in order to graduate. English language arts and math are the primary testing areas; science was added a few years ago although it is not used when measuring AYP. History was added and then dropped last year. Test results are used to measure schools in four areas: participation (number of students taking the test), performance, improvement and attendance (or graduation rate if the school is a high school). In the four areas schools are measured by total performance (called aggregate), and also in subgroups that include students with limited English proficiency, special education, low income and five ethnic groups (black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American and white). To make its AYP, a school must meet performance targets in the aggregate and in every subgroup. Framed under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the goal of MCAS is to have schools become 100 per cent proficient in every area by the year 2014.

Most educators agree that using this standard, every school at some point will fail. “[In this system] it’s inevitable that schools will fail at some point — it’s just a matter of time,” Mr. Stevens said.

Mr. Weiss agreed. “If you look at the information released by the state, progressively more schools are failing because the target keeps increasing,” he said. He added: “My analogy is this: if we were General Motors you could not have any callbacks; one recall would mean a failing company.”

Mr. Stevens and Mr. Binney both characterized not making AYP as a constructive tool for improvement, but they are acutely aware that it is seen by some only as failure. “There is a stigma attached to it and I recognize that,” Mr. Stevens said.

“It’s a scarlet letter,” Mr. Binney declared.

Mr. Stevens continued: “The problem is that it focuses all the attention on the poor performers, and I agree that we need to focus attention on those students. But what about the middle learners, and the gifted and talented learners? We can’t forget those kids either.

“The truth is that there’s a lot of good news in this school, and we need to remember that.”

Mr. Weiss agreed.

“John has done a phenomenal job of focusing his resources on those kids who need to make more progress, and the Edgartown School is doing phenomenally well. It’s just that there are some kids who are slower at making progress because they learn at a slower rate,” he said. He concluded:

“I would say that we are pleased with the overall performance of Island students on the MCAS; it shows they have learned a lot and that’s really our focus — on what kids can learn.”

A complete list of MCAS rankings broken down by school and by grade, can be viewed on the Boston Globe Web site, A list of links to the site is published on the Gazette Web site,