MCAS and Boston Magazine Rankings Examined

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

MCAS LogoAt the September 24 School Committee meeting, Superintendent Jon Sills reported favorable news about the 2013 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) scores while saying, at the same time, that some of the elementary grades and subgroups continue to need attention. Sills added that he suspects the areas warranting additional focus played a role in lowering the most recent Boston Magazine school district rankings.

To shine a positive light on the MCAS scores that were released by the State on September 23, Sills said that for the second year in a row, Bedford High School’s 2013 10th grade scored 100% advanced/proficient in the English Language Arts (ELA) portion on the MCAS tests. Sills also reported that Bedford High’s 10th grade MCAS math scores were excellent, with 94% scoring in the advanced/proficient percentiles and a full 80% scoring in the advanced category alone.

The Superintendent pointed out that Bedford outranked other competitive schools such as Newton North, Brookline, and Lincoln-Sudbury. He added that, although the rankings should be “taken with a grain of salt”, only thirteen other non-charter high schools out of 354 in the state scored 100% advanced/proficient in English Language Arts in 2013.

The test results are now being mailed out to families of individual students, as they have been in past years, Sills said.

Shifting to area that have been identified as needing improvement, Sills said that although some scores at John Glenn Middle School and Job Lane Elementary were strong, there was “room for growth” in a number of places. Sills then specified where test outcome had been weakest, adding that the low scores were probably a factor in lowering Bedford’s Boston Magazine ranking from 18th in 2011 to 36th in 2013

Those areas for improvement include:

  • 3rd and 4th grade ELA, 4th, 6th,7th and 8th grade mathematics;
  • 8th grade science;
  • General proficiency levels in subgroups such as English language learners, African American students, and students with low incomes or with learning disabilities.

“We’re proud of our achievements and we are committed to improving our various subgroup achievements where they fall short,” Sills said. “Our perspective is that learning is more about growth and capacity-building than scores and discrete knowledge.”

Showing a chart that demonstrated subgroup population fluctuations as well as an encouraging trend toward improvement in subgroup test scores, Sills said the Schools had been challenged by “a significant increase in student complexity” since 2010. Beginning in 2012, the schools began focusing on “learning how to improve teaching for struggling students in the lower grades.”

“Change between 2010 and 2013 happened rapidly and faster than we were able to catch up to . . . .The socio-economic diversity in town has increased and we see this complexity as enriching but, at the same time, challenging. All the literature tells us that as populations get more complex in schools, the challenges around education increase,” Sills explained.

Some of the recent steps that have been taken to improve student achievement in Davis, Lane and JGMS include:

  • implementation of a phonics program called “Fundations” in kindergarten through third grade;
  • implementation of “enVisionMath” program in grades 3-5;
  • establishment of a skills center at the middle school;
  • additional English Language Learner (ELL) staff;
  • additional counseling staff at JGMS;
  • across the continuum work among faculty and administration to improve “cohesion and coherence” within the curriculum.

Sills noted that, although the lower grade MCAS scores were not as strong as desired, by the time students reach high school, their test scores are higher— as demonstrated by the last two years’ high achievements in ELA and math in the 10th grade.

School Committee member Michael McAllister said that, in his opinion, MCAS results are “autopsy data” because by the time they are received, the students have moved on to the next grade.

Committee Chair Ed Pierce pointed out that, within the lower scoring subgroups being examines, one student could be represented in several categories. Since the numbers in the subgroups are small to begin with, a single struggling student could have a large impact on achievement percentages.

“The trouble with a small system like we have is that, theoretically, this could be ten kids in total that have a big impact,” Pierce said.

Sills responded that it is quite common for students to be counted in more than one subgroup category and that, indeed, subgroup cohorts are small.

“What comes out of this,” Pierce concluded, “is that it will show us how well we’re teaching all kids, not just the ones at the top.”

To describe the Schools’ philosophy of standardized test-taking, Sills emphasized that Bedford does not teach to the MCAS test. “We have a very rich curriculum which incorporates the Massachusetts [educational] frameworks that have now become the [Common] Core but goes beyond that. We think that we offer our kids something richer and more complex and that it would do them a disservice to take time away from teaching and learning to just prep them for the test itself.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t do some integration of specific kinds of questions that are on the test because kids have to know how to take the test and have some practice in doing so but we do that in a limited fashion. Test scores are just one indicator of student achievement—albeit a useful one. We give [other] assessments that measure more complex reasoning and the ability to apply their learning. MCAS hasn’t done much of that to date,” Sills concluded.

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