The MCAS Scoreboard

Vineyard students take statewide standardized tests in the fall and spring. This week the annual test results were published, making now a testing time for parents, educators and the community. What do we make of the good news and the bad?

By and large, Island student scores are fine. With generally small class sizes in Island schools, a couple of kids — whether because they are being tested in a second language, or because they have specific learning problems, because they just don’t understand or because they had a bad day — can score poorly and skew the “progress” reported for the whole school. Neither Edgartown nor Oak Bluffs schools have met their adequate yearly progress this year, a bureaucratic way of saying their improvement has not been steady enough, at least for certain kids. It’s worth noting that as the rules are currently drawn, all schools will eventually fail the standards, which aim for an unrealistic one hundred per cent proficiency in basic subjects. Nevertheless, the test results are useful for focusing educators directly on which students and teachers need help.

Federal and state funds for Oak Bluffs schools are affected by these results, meaning the school will be restricted in how it spends certain funding in already tight budgets. So town officials — and all of us as taxpayers, whether we have kids in the system or not — should seriously consider how our schools are performing for our youngest residents. And we should think seriously about how we resource them. Before cutting school budgets, which eat a big chunk of our tax money, we could consider what we really are sacrificing. Because though the merit of standardized tests and the levels that pass for progress are debatable, the need for today’s student to meet basic literacy and numeracy standards is not.

We should be setting higher goals for our schools and our students, not pulling resources out from under them. Tisbury School placed thirtieth out of almost a thousand schools in third-grade math — school administrators should be asking what they are doing right and sharing the knowledge. Likewise, the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School placed fourth out of almost nine hundred schools in fifth-grade math. Kudos! However, what about the grades and subjects where your school underperformed?

An education report out this week says kids who aren’t reading well by the end of third grade are at risk of dropping out or failing to graduate. Their literacy instruction now will not only affect the future for our children — who, whatever livelihoods they choose in this rapidly transforming economy, will need to read and write — but it will shape the community and the nation, which will fall behind others and fail without a next generation that is more capable than the last.

To this end, the annual test scores raise another issue for our school communities to keep in mind: the system as it is set up focuses attention on those who, as the law says, might otherwise be left behind. So if one or two children in grade three are “at risk of failing” according to the tests, and money and reputation depend on the test results, the temptation is to teach to the minimum standard. Top or even average children may lose opportunities to be challenged and inspired if resources are always directed down. Gifted and talented programs have slipped in school priorities, and we should consider whether there is more to be done for those students in our schools.

And, as we absorb all the data, we will do well to remember: education is not only about test results. Imagination, critical thinking and innovation are hard to measure with multiple choice. Still, a test is always an opportunity to focus us on doing our best, rather than try to cram or cheat our way to a passing education for our kids. After all, the real results come out when today’s students are running our communities, corporations and government.