MCAS Scores: What Lies Beneath

Examining the results of the annual statewide standardized school exams can be like being a kid again and looking under a big rock in the woods. We all recall that sense of discovery, turning over something that from above appeared a lifeless shape of stone and finding that it sheltered teeming activity of all kinds. Suddenly there was much more to study.

There is an equally fascinating world beneath the top line results of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS. On the surface, many Island schools have failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress, or “met AYP,” as the jargon would have it. This is true, to some degree, in some testing categories, for all Vineyard schools except the regional high school. It also is true of more than 82 per cent of all Massachusetts schools. Clearly the results need more scrutiny.

First, MCAS results are based on mandated benchmarks of progress. Failure to meet AYP means scores haven’t met set improvement standards that increase each year toward the goal of every single student meeting or exceeding performance standards in every subject area.

This is a fine goal, if unrealistic. This year’s MCAS scores actually show that the performance of Vineyard students has improved steadily, but that not enough students have improved quickly enough, to show “AYP.” In several cases, our schools ranked first in the state; sometimes every Island child in one grade at one school did show themselves advanced or proficient, achieving that arbitrary goal.

Unfortunately, attempts to summarize overall MCAS results make it easy for critics of public schools to draw unfair conclusions. Public education is failing, some say, or the whole testing regimen is misguided. Others worry that schools will end up “teaching to the test.” Those who take the time to examine the numbers can find insights into ways we can improve the way our children learn.

Island educators mine the MCAS data to better shape teaching to reach students. They drill into the data for trends that indicate a broader weakness and take long-term corrective action — perhaps switching to a new math teaching curriculum, or incorporating more writing into subjects outside language arts.

Standardized tests have their place in ensuring children are learning. As Vineyard parents and community members, we are lucky to attract astute administrators and thoughtful teachers. Their thoughtfulness shows not only in their sensible responses to the MCAS tests but also in the individual, personal attention given to so many of our students, the enrichment programs, the extracurricular opportunities and the engagement with the wider Vineyard community.

Just this week, charter school sixth graders went to Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary as citizen scientists, peering beneath untreated pine boards on a hunt for salamanders as part of a larger monitoring program (they found three). Look underneath the test results, you will also find young lives thriving, academically and in so many other ways, in our schools.