Bedford’s Latest MCAS Test Scores, Dissected

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

(c) The Beekman Chronicle

Interim Assistant Superintendent Dr. Claire Jackson opened her presentation to the School Committee about Bedford’s most recent MCAS scores by saying there was “good news and not-so-good news.”

“I’m happy to be reporting on an outstanding school district with extraordinary results,” Jackson began. “The very good news is that the High School has outdone itself. They are level 1 and number 1 [in the state] in English, and under any other circumstance we would say we could close up and go home now, they’ve done such a fine job.”

But, Jackson continued, it is also necessary to distinguish between these truly stellar results and areas of weakness.

“When the Boston Globe produces rankings of all the schools, I always get a bit skittish because The Globe produces winners and losers. The fact of the matter is, that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story about students and their growth. So my presentation tonight is not completely ‘rah-rah, aren’t we wonderful?’ I am [also] bringing to your attention areas that need improvement that we can focus on, but it is in the context of the absolute, undeniable excellence of the Bedford Schools and the academic and intellectual standards that Bedford has.”

Digging into the MCAS test results data and the different performance snapshots the information provides, Jackson noted that math in the John Glenn Middle and Lane schools showed poor test outcomes among specific population subgroups: Special Education, English Language Learners, African-American, and Low Income. No single subgroup bears the responsibility for particularly low scores, as they all performed fairly equally. These low scores, however, are the reason that the Bedford school district received a level 2 designation from the state rather than a level 1.

“Eighty percent of our students across the district in every grade—from kindergarten through grade 12—are performing at the very highest levels,” said Jackson. “The students of the subgroups are the students for whom we need to make a greater effort to raise achievement.”

In this vein, Jackson praised Dr. Percy Napier, METCO director, for his efforts to improve mathematics achievement among minority students, saying his initiatives have made a demonstrable difference. “We can see incremental growth and that’s very, very important,” she said.

The bottom line, said Jackson, is that the subgroups are not growing at the same rate as the entire population. “My understanding is that there were higher rankings in the previous three years, especially in grade 5 mathematics.”

To summarize her recommendations for remedial action in the next three to five years, Jackson provided this eight-item checklist:

  • Continue to refine the common and equivalent assessments at Bedford High School.
  • Adopt a uniform, articulated, coherent math program and sequence to be integrated with fidelity over the next three years in K–8.
  • Adopt a uniform, articulated, coherent phonics program and sequence to be integrated with fidelity over the next three years in K–3.
  • Develop and publish the Bedford Public Schools Learning Expectations, aligned with the Common Core and reflecting local standards and values.
  • Create common and equivalent formative assessments in grades K–8 that measure learning as described in the grade level Bedford Learning Expectations.
  • Strengthen science, math, reading and writing instruction by providing focused in-house professional development and summer workshops designed to strengthen programs in grades K–8.
  • Support each of the initiatives with adequate funding to ensure that all teachers participate in school-year, district-wideinitiatives, and that all teachers have the opportunity to participate in summer workshops that clarify instructional strategies and support achievement, while developing challenging curriculum.
  • Support strengthening the focus of the intervention blocks at Davis and Lane and piloting a Skills Center at JGMS to replicate the high school success.

School Committee members responded to Dr. Jackson’s presentation with a variety of comments and questions:

Member Abbie Seibert noted that the High School test results were really what mattered and confessed that she is not a fan of MCAS. Seibert wondered if the test, as a methodof measurement, was flawed, especially since students in the lower grades are still forming.

Jackson answered that some information would emerge out of any type of test or measurement that was used. In her opinion, the thing to focus on—with any test’s result— is what the school district can improve upon. For example, in this case, the outcomes have validatedthe need to develop a more coherent math program.

Brad Hafer appreciated the prescriptive actions Jackson provided and called them “spot on,” although he admitted that he, like Seibert, was not a huge fan of MCAS. “We do need to measure performance but the key question is, is MCAS measuring the school system or an individual student or a teacher? Here it points out the achievement gap does exist here in Bedford. The challenges [that the subgroups] present to us are something we are struggling with every day. . . .We know there’s a lot more behind this data than what is reflected in the Boston Globe.”

“We’re all so conscientious,” replied Jackson, “and I appreciate that. But there is no need here for excuses.  There are just things we need to do better and we want to do better. I know you’re all saying ‘but we have to get everyone up to 99%.’ And we will do it. It just takes time.”

Committee member Ed Pierce saw the MCAS data analysis as helpful, additional information. “The real importance is not what MCAS scores do to a town’s real estate values but what it tells a school district about where they are—or aren’t—performing. This goes back to the measure of just passing kids along—that was the old way. You just turned your eye and said ‘God bless you, I hope you can function in society.’ Now we’re trying to change that dynamic by educating all kids. There are some successes in the population, but there are still some underserved children. We are in the 97th percentile, but not for all the populations all the time.”

Noreen O’Gara appreciated the information that the test results provide. “Originally, I was sort of anti-MCAS, but now I’m more with Ed [Pierce] and see it as a really good tool. I hope it doesn’t go away. . . .There’s a lot of value to be pulled out [of the test results]. I am happy they are looking at these subgroups because for many years past and in many communities, it was just easier to gloss over those kids, and no one actually looked at individual students. I hope we can continue to use the data.”

Chair Anne Bickford wrapped up the Committee’s comments by speaking to the variability of growth in the younger years. “But by the time they get to high school that’s all going to gel—it’s going to come together. . . .We also have a large transient population at the High School—which is not a subgroup that you’ve pulled out—so having the High School graded as number one across the state is a huge achievement because of the underlying transient subgroup.”

Jackson replied, “The fact of the matter is, you’re right—by the time they get to high school, they’re good. All of them are good. All of the subgroups at the high school are all performing at high levels.”

To see Bedford’s number one ELA (English Language Arts) ranking, visit: https://www.boston.com/news/special/education/mcas/scores12/10th_top_schools.htm