With standardized test results made public last Friday, school leaders Islandwide have begun to examine the wealth of data and discuss student performance with staff and parents.
Scores from the MCAS test administered to Island students last spring show the majority of students at Island public schools are performing at or above state standards in English language arts, mathematics and science.
Test scores from the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System for individual schools were released by the state department of elementary and secondary education last Friday morning.
Students in third through eighth grades took the test last spring in the subject areas of English, math and science. In addition, tenth graders must pass the mathematics, English and biology tests in order to graduate.
There are seven public schools on the Vineyard: five elementary schools, a regional high school and a public charter school. Across the board, students in those schools demonstrated proficiency in English, math and science last year. But there was more variation in the state and federal accountability rankings.
In Massachusetts, schools are graded on two major scales: how well test scores compare to other schools in the state, and how well the schools are progressing toward narrowing the gap between underperforming and proficient students.
The second scale is an accountability measure adopted under the federal No Child Left Behind act, which sets high expectations for students, even those who require extra supports in the classroom. Under these regulations, schools must demonstrate that each year they are working toward cutting the proficiency gap by half by 2017. State and federal requirements are combined under the new system, which for the first time incorporates growth in the accountability measure. But school leaders say improving in line with the new school evaluation system becomes more difficult each year.
“Our gaps are not large, so the targets we get are challenging,” Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss explained. “When you are already doing quite well, it’s more difficult,” to improve, he said.
Level one designates a school that is meeting gap-closing goals for all students and the high-needs subgroup, and level two represents schools that do not meet those same goals. On the Vineyard four schools achieved the highest ranking, while two fell behind slightly. The regional high school and public charter school both scored two on a scale of one to five under the gap-narrowing system. Four elementary schools — Edgartown, Tisbury, Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury — had number one rankings, the highest. Chilmark is not evaluated in this category because its enrollment is so small. Most schools in the state fall into the level one or two category.
Adopted in 2012, the gap-narrowing system replaces a previous performance measure that graded schools based on adequate yearly progress (AYP), which stipulated that schools demonstrate 100 per cent proficiency by 2014.
The high school fell to a level two rating for the first time; and this is the second consecutive year that the charter school has been ranked level two.
Regional high school principal Stephen Nixon said the rating, while indicating room for improvement, does not tell the whole story, and he pointed to the strong and steady proficiency scores achieved by high school students in all subject areas.
“Our scores went up but the level went down,” he said.
Gap-narrowing progress is measured against 2011 scores, which Mr. Nixon said was an arbitrary baseline, and in the case of the high school, an unlucky one. The 10th graders of 2011 were unusually high performers, scoring at what were historic levels in both MCAS and the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
“Because that was an abnormal spike for us, we are spending the next four years trying to catch up to that,” Mr. Nixon said in an interview this week.
Last year’s 10th graders have continued that trend of achievement, scoring in the 98th percentile in English when compared with similar schools in the state, and in the 94th in math. Students also excelled in science, scoring in the 93rd percentile. Overall, 96 per cent of students scored advanced or proficient in English, and 88 per cent of students scored proficient or better in math tests, an increase of two percentage points from last year.
Science scores also went up this year. As the last test added to the MCAS, science is not included in accountability measures because of a lack of historic data.
“When you are a high-performing school, you are now dealing with that three per cent of kids that may be hard to get to proficient, so that makes it harder to get there,” explained high school guidance department director Michael McCarthy.
The high school also did not make the target 95 per cent participation, affecting the district level rating. Six students were absent on the day of English testing for medical reasons, but are still considered absent under MCAS regulations.
Mr. Nixon said he hoped the extraordinary academic achievements of the students do not get lost in the lower accountability score. “That [level] two is more about growth, it’s not about scores,” the principal said. “And if you look at our scores, our scores are very, very good.”
The charter school, which is kindergarten through 12th grade, also turned in strong scores on the exams, but progress still needs to be made to meet the gap-narrowing target for the categories of all students, and high needs students, a subgroup which includes students with disabilities, English language learners and low-income students.
“We have work to do but we have improved,” said charter school director Robert Moore. “Our students across the board have improved their scores from last year, so we are really pleased about that,” he said. In the state’s view, the school did not go far enough to improve from last year.
Mr. Moore said discussions have already begun about how to reach out to students who struggle on state tests, and improve teaching strategies to accommodate their needs. He said no changes to curriculum will be made; rather staff will work to identify instructional strategies to help students meet the targets.
Scores from all five elementary schools show students are performing significantly better than their counterparts across the state.
At West Tisbury, 79 per cent of students scored proficient or higher on English tests. Scores in math also beat the state average at 72 per cent proficient, compared to 58 per cent.
New West Tisbury principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt said she was pleased with the results, which placed the school in the 88th percentile.
Oak Bluffs is continuing a two-year trend of significant academic improvement, after four consecutive years of falling below state standards. Oak Bluffs students placed in the 92nd percentile among cohort schools statewide on spring exams. “That’s reason to celebrate,” said principal Richard Smith. Eighty per cent of Oak Bluffs students scored at least a grade of proficient on English tests, while 69 per cent scored proficient or advanced in math. Mr. Smith said the school worked hard to reverse its academic record. “We were a failing school, and those kids have really put out a ton of effort,” he said. “I want to make sure that the kids know that their efforts were rewarded in the scores that we had last year.”
But while growth in math exceeded expectations, English language scores fell slightly. Historically, Oak Bluffs students had performed better in English than math, so staffing and resources were redistributed slightly to benefit the mathematics department. “When you are looking at trying to address a need through limited resources, if you pull too much, you may end up taking from another area . . . unfortunately it looks like we did a little of robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Mr. Smith said.
Future planning will take the imbalance into account, Mr. Smith said.
At the Chilmark School, 74 per cent of students achieved proficiency in English compared with 58 per cent statewide, and 83 per cent scored proficient in math compared with 60 per cent statewide. Scores for individual grade levels are not available because the classes there are so small. “I’d say overall I am very pleased with the results,” said principal Susan Stevens. “There were no surprises, and there were a lot of kids that did better than expected.”
The highest-scoring group at the Edgartown School was the eighth grade, which earned first place in English in the state, and second place in science. Principal John Stevens stressed that the achievement of the oldest students in the school reflects an effort that started in kindergarten. “That’s a whole-school cumulative effort,” Mr. Stevens said.
At the Tisbury School, 86 per cent of students scored proficient or better on English language arts tests, compared with 65 per cent statewide. Principal John Custer credited a community-wide effort to create a comfortable environment for test-takers. The PTO brings in food for the students, and neighboring classes prepare encouraging posters that they hang in the hall.
“There’s a focus schoolwide on supporting kids and setting conditions that will hopefully allow them to be as successful,” he said. The school met all improvement targets this year, but Mr. Custer isn’t resting on his laurels. He said there are other measurements of student achievement used to assess growth. “We also know other areas in the school that we want to improve that the MCAS doesn’t necessarily test for,” he said.
While it is difficult to continue to score a level one each year, it is not impossible, said Mr. Stevens. Mr. Custer agreed. “If we do our job and align our resources and student supports where they need to be, I am very hopeful that we can continue to make the progress that we are making now,” he said. “There is always room for improvement.”
See more on MCAS scores at http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/search.