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MCAS scores fall shy of target

More than half of Mass. schools fail to meet new federal standards

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / September 17, 2009

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BROCKTON - For the first time since testing began, more than half of Massachusetts schools are out of compliance with federal achievement standards, education officials said yesterday, a finding that raises warning flags for local educators but also sparks questions about whether the national benchmarks are too high.

The determination was based on the latest round of MCAS scores, released yesterday, which determine whether schools and districts are making necessary progress toward goals set under the No Child Left Behind Act.

In Massachusetts, a state that consistently ranks as a national leader in student achievement and academic standards, 937 elementary, middle, and high schools, or 54 percent of all schools statewide, failed to meet the benchmarks, a 4 percentage point increase from last year, according to preliminary data. That number includes nearly three-quarters of the 135 schools in Boston.

Charter schools, many known for stellar MCAS scores, did not fare much better than their traditional school counterparts. Almost half of the state’s 62 charter schools fell short, failing to demonstrate two consecutive years of adequate improvement in their scores.

State education officials expressed frustration that the federal law has forced them to identify so many schools as requiring improvement. They attempted to reassure the public about the state’s school system. Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said that most schools are educating students well, but that their MCAS scores did not rise fast enough to satisfy federal goals that grow more demanding each year.

“The increase in the number of schools identified is not an issue of schools backsliding on performance,’’ said Chester, adding that scores in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams this past spring went up at most grade levels.

Chester said he has serious concerns about only a small fraction of the schools identified. About 30 of the schools could be taken over by the state under a proposal by Governor Deval Patrick to be considered today by a legislative committee. Members will also hear testimony about a Patrick plan to double the number of charter school seats in districts with the worst MCAS scores, such as Boston.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools and districts must increase each year the percentage of students who can demonstrate a solid command of grade-level material in English and math on state standardized tests, as part of an aggressive effort to boost student achievement by 2014.

Schools and districts are judged on their overall progress with students as a whole, as well as on the performance of certain subgroups broken down by race/ethnicity, family-income level, learning disabilities, and other characteristics. If a school or one of its subgroups fails to make necessary progress two years in a row, the state designates the school as needing improvement, requiring moderate changes to programs.

If problems persist for four years, the school or district goes into “corrective action,’’ causing possible changes in school leadership and teaching philosophy. At five years, the school is labeled as in need of restructuring, which could lead to a state takeover. This year, 378 schools were deemed in need of restructuring, almost 100 more than last year.

It takes two consecutive years of adequate improvement on the MCAS to return to good standing.

In addition to the 937 schools labeled in need of improvement, 109 districts, or approximately 28 percent of all statewide, did not meet standards, up from 89 last year.

Driving the ever-increasing federal standards is a goal of having all students in the nation proficient in English and math by 2014, a standard that each state can define on its own. To meet the standard in Massachusetts, students must achieve a score of proficient on the MCAS, the second highest of four marks and one notch above what the state currently deems a passing mark (needs improvement).

Some say the state has set its proficiency bar too high, as part of a desire to have the toughest standards in the nation.

“It’s dishonest to blame the federal government, because the federal government let the states set their own proficiency scores,’’ said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and a longtime MCAS critic. “There are students in some states who are not only labeled proficient but competent who would not graduate from high school if they lived in Massachusetts.’’

Other analysts support the state’s application of the federal law, saying that Massachusetts routinely ranks high on national and even international standardized tests, a success that bodes well in developing a skilled workforce for the state and rescuing children from a life in poverty.

“There’s no question that [the federal law] sets a very high and perhaps an unattainable goal,’’ said Jamie Gass of the Pioneer Institute, a research and policy group that has strongly supported MCAS. “Nevertheless, if two-thirds of students are below proficient in some schools, at some point it becomes a moral imperative to turn around those schools, or we should free these students from those schools.’’

The Obama administration is recommending changes to the seven-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for congressional reauthorization. While many school leaders are pushing Obama for more leeway in meeting the proficiency goal, the administration has made no decisions in that area, a US Department of Education spokeswoman said yesterday. The administration, she said, is rethinking the way schools are labeled for improvement, out of concern that the designations may falsely imply that a school is failing.

In Boston, the school system has been facing accusations of failure from challengers in this fall’s mayoral race because the state has labeled so many city schools for improvement. Yesterday, the city celebrated the success of two schools, the Nathan Hale and the Eliot, which were able to shed the designation, and hailed the improved test scores in English and math at several grade levels. However, 99 of the 135 schools still have failed to show the necessary improvement on MCAS. The district is contesting nine such designations.

In Brockton, where education officials chose to make their announcement yesterday, the high school is poised to lose its restructuring designation next year if its MCAS scores go up once again.

Speaking before a packed auditorium of jubilant 11th-graders who took the exam last spring, Chester said that he was confident that Brockton High has found a successful turnaround plan.

“Success here used to be defined by a football game,’’ said Susan Szachowicz, the school’s principal. “Now, it’s defined by an assembly like this. I’m so proud of them.’’

2009 MCAS results

2009 MCAS results

See the results of your town and district.
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