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Many schools in state lagging on MCAS

Miss their goals in new rating system

State Education Secretary Paul Reville spoke about MCAS scores at Columbus Park School in Worcester on Wednesday.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

State Education Secretary Paul Reville spoke about MCAS scores at Columbus Park School in Worcester on Wednesday.

WORCESTER — Nearly two-thirds of Massachusetts public schools are falling short of performance targets under the state’s new evaluation system, even as struggling urban districts achieve solid gains, state officials reported Wednesday.

In Boston, as well as other city districts, results on the standardized tests were mixed. Scores among 10th-graders rose to new heights. But in the lower grades, results were largely stagnant, and in a number of cases dropped.

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Statewide, about 1,000 of nearly 1,600 public schools did not meet the new targets on the standardized tests this year, ­either for “high-needs” students, such as those with disabilities or from low-income families, or for the student body as a whole.

Although almost two-thirds of schools fell short of performance targets, the state as a whole fared better than last year, when 80 percent of schools fell short. The reason has largely to do with a change in the yardstick used to measure success.

Last year, it was set by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Most provisions of the law have been replaced by a new measure, crafted by state officials, that aims to have Massachusetts schools cut proficiency gaps in half by 2017.

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“That’s an ambitious target, but we know it’s achievable,” said Mitchell Chester, the state’s education commissioner.

The new goals are seen as far more realistic. The old federal standard, he said, “had no credibility” and “invited cynicism.”

State officials pointed to ­Columbus Park Preparatory Academy in Worcester as an example of the flaws in the federal standards. Despite strong improve­ment in recent years, the school had consistently fallen short of the mark set by the No Child Left Behind law. But this year, the school was one of 64 recognized for its performance.

“This really is a testament to your efforts,” Chester told teachers and administrators. “You have been relentless in looking for opportunities to be more effective.”

Since 2008, the percentage of third-graders at the school scoring proficient or higher in math surged from 22 to 56, while fourth-graders jumped 39 points in English.

On the other end of the spectrum, officials designated three more schools for overhauls: Mattahunt School in Boston; Henry K. Oliver School in Lawrence; and William N. DeBerry School in Springfield. They have three years to make substantial improvement or face a potential state takeover.

The new system is based on the state’s education overhaul law of 2010, which focuses on improving schools with persistently low test scores. It had tagged 40 schools for low test scores, but the latest results showed many making strides.

Over the past two years, schools in Boston, Lynn, ­Lowell, and Worcester saw double-digit increases. Of 34 schools now in their third year of turnaround plans, 25 saw solid improvement in English, and 22 in math.

But some advocates say the new system signals a retreat, and that schools will no longer be held as accountable for student performance.

“In recent years, our students have made historic gains on state, national, and inter­national testing, which makes it all the more puzzling why there’s been a turning away from the policies that led to these successes,” said Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy ­Research in Boston.

But at least at the high school level, signs were promising. In Springfield, the district saw strong gains among black and Hispanic 10th-­graders, which administrators credited to stronger course work and ­extra help for immigrant students.

“We want to see progress in every group, at every school,” said Daniel Warwick, the superintendent of schools.

In Boston, 73 percent of 10th-graders reached proficiency in English, the highest mark since the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System began. Scores in math and science also rose.

The Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, for instance, saw its English proficiency rate climb to 50 percent, up from 41, and its math rate surge from 39 to 50 percent. At Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury, English scores rose by 16 points and by 6 points in math.

But lackluster scores in ­Boston’s lower grades raised concern that many children are falling behind. Third-grade math results dropped slightly, with 30 percent scoring in the lowest category. Third-grade reading scores did not improve, with nearly two-thirds failing to make proficiency, and in fourth grade 69 percent missed the mark in English.

For the district as a whole, 46 percent of Boston students were proficient or higher in English, compared with 69 percent statewide; 41 percent were proficient in math, compared with 59 statewide; and 26 percent were proficient in science, compared with 54 statewide.

Boston school officials said they had identified 21 schools for extra attention and would be sending in teams of coaches.

On Wednesday morning, Superintendent Carol R. Johnson visited the Henderson Inclusion Elementary School in Dorchester to recognize the school for its rising test scores.

“We’re hoping to continue and replicate this kind of success in other schools,” she said.

Many charter schools also excelled. The Edward Brooke Charter School in Boston was among the state leaders in eighth-grade English, as well as fourth-grade math and English, according to the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. In Boston, nine of 13 charter schools ranked in the top category, compared with 15 percent of traditional district schools. Other cities showed a similar divide.

Paul Grogan of The Boston Foundation said the rising scores validate the decision to allow more charter schools in 2010. “There’s a breathtaking gap here,” he said. “The kids who are lucky enough to get into these charters are winning a life lottery.”

Correspondent Patrick D. Rosso contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.
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