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Schools missing mark on MCAS

More fail to meet federal standard

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / September 15, 2010

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MCAS test scores released yesterday show that more Massachusetts schools than ever are failing to measure up to federal achievement standards, with 57 percent out of compliance.

The test scores were announced as officials attempted to focus attention on the unveiling of a program to recognize top-performing schools.

While elementary and middle school pupils at most grade levels showed impressive gains on the math portion of the test — having more students in the top two scoring categories, proficient and advanced — their results in English were mixed. On the high school exams, math scores were flat, and English scores declined slightly.

The uneven results put the state even further behind in meeting the federal benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires annual increases in state standardized test scores. By 2014, all students, including those with learning disabilities and limited fluency in English, must be proficient — possessing a command of grade-level material. It’s a goal many educators and state education officials have criticized as unattainable.

Across the state, 982 elementary, middle and high schools — representing 57 percent of Massachusetts schools — failed to meet the benchmarks, up from 929 last year, according to the preliminary data.

The state also announced that 123 school districts, including 32 independently-run public charter schools, failed to meet test score targets under No Child Left Behind, representing about a third of all districts statewide. Last year, 106 districts and charter schools were identified.

Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner for elementary and secondary education, called the growing number of schools out of compliance “inevitable.’’

“A lot of people are questioning these federal targets,’’ Chester said in an interview as he attempted to shore up public confidence in the state’s schools. “This doesn’t mean we are slipping backwards.’’

Under No Child Left Behind, schools and districts are judged on their progress with students overall, as well as on the performance of certain subgroups broken down by race/ethnicity, family-income level, learning disabilities, and other criteria. 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 slight adjustments to programs.

If problems persist for four years, the school or district goes into “corrective action,’’ possibly prompting 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, 473, almost half of all schools receiving federal designations, were deemed in need of restructuring.

It takes two consecutive years of adequate improvement on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams to return to good standing — a feat 62 schools achieved this year.

The Obama administration intends to make changes to the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been up for reauthorization for more than a year, to develop a more nuanced way of judging performance. The administration wants to move away from the “proficiency’’ benchmark, set under former president George W. Bush, to one that assesses the readiness of students for college or the workplace, but it is unclear when such changes will be made.

With so many Massachusetts schools receiving federal designations, the state this year created a system, under a state law enacted this year, to provide assistance to those that need it the most. As part of that effort, the state identified 35 as underperforming.

Yesterday’s MCAS scores showed that some of Boston’s 12 underperforming schools made gains.

Trotter Elementary saw double-digit increases in overall performance in English, while the Agassiz, John F. Kennedy and Dever elementary schools had double-digit increases in overall math performance, school officials said.

However, the state suppressed scores for Blackstone Elementary School in the South End after Superintendent Carol R. Johnson asked the state last month to investigate the data, officials said.

In an interview yesterday, Johnson said the scores appeared to increase at a rate that was not consistent with other testing data for the school, raising questions about the authenticity of the MCAS scores. “We want to make sure as we develop a baseline for performance that we start with valid information,’’ Johnson said.

It is rare for the state not to release a school’s MCAS scores. Last year, the state suppressed scores for Robert M. Hughes Charter School in Springfield, and an investigation later revealed widespread cheating, prompting the state to shut down the school in June.

Johnson said she did not want to speculate about the reasons behind the spike in scores at Blackstone.

In general on the MCAS, Boston officials say, students often improved at faster rates on the math exam than the state and showed improvement in English.

Yesterday, Chester preferred to keep attention on the positive during a news conference in a classroom of eighth-graders at Eliot K-8 School in Boston’s North End. It was there that Chester announced 187 “Commendation Schools,’’ which includes the Eliot, under a new program to recognize schools making strides in boosting the academic achievement of their students and success in closing achievement gaps between students of different backgrounds.

Chester did not mention the growing number of schools out of compliance with federal standards until reporters questioned him about it after his presentation.

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said Chester’s decision not to dwell on the number of schools missing federal testing targets shows how little credibility remains in that system.

“The fact that there are so many schools in sanction and testing data is being used as a weapon and not as a tool to improve student achievement is frustrating to a lot of people,’’ he said.

In a statement, Governor Deval Patrick said, “There are so many great success stories in schools across this Commonwealth because of the efforts of administrators, teachers, students, and parents who are united and committed to making every effort to ensure that every child that walks through the door receives a high-quality education.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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