Metro

Evan Horowitz

MCAS results are in. Are our students learning?

If you want to know which Massachusetts schools make the biggest difference in the lives of their students, it’s in the 2014 MCAS results released this morning.

The number they call “student growth percentile” is designed to measure the impact of schools. It doesn’t look at how well students are doing on tests. It looks at how much they’ve improved. The schools with high “student growth percentile” are the ones full of kids who are learning faster and improving more rapidly than their peers around the state.

So, which schools are transforming kids?

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Judging from the student growth scores, here are six of the schools that did the most to help students learn, across Math and English, in 2014.

These aren’t necessarily the places with the smartest kids or the highest-achievers. At UP Academy Charter School of Dorchester less than two-thirds actually met the proficiency standards. At Henry K. Oliver, just one in four students is proficient in science or math.

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But students at these schools are seeing the biggest improvements on their MCAS scores.

One caveat here is that a fair number of elementary schools don’t get student growth percentiles, because there isn’t enough information yet to make the calculation for younger kids.

How do they measure student growth?

The idea is relatively straightforward. Let’s say there’s a kid who scores 250 on the third-grade English test. A year later, when she takes the fourth-grade test, you can compare her new score with other kids around the state who got 250 last time. If she does better, she’s growing. And if her school has lots of students outperforming their one-time peers, that’s a sign that the school is making a difference.

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2014 Massachusetts MCAS Rankings
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The student growth measure was introduced in 2009 to help provide a more accurate assessment of classroom impact. The trouble with more familiar measures, like overall test scores, is that they don’t necessarily tell you much about the quality of schools. High test scores can also reflect the wealth of the surrounding community, the likelihood that kids get tutors, the educational background of parents, and other socio-economic factors.

I’m still interested in the big picture. How did kids do, overall?

They did more or less as well as as they did last year. The only exception was the eighth grade, where there was a a slight increase in science proficiency and a dip in math.

Looking back over the past few years, there’s been very little growth in the share of students who meet or exceed the grade-level proficiency standards.

Was there any narrowing of the achievement gap?

Nothing substantial. Between rich and poor, white and black, the achievement gap remains quite wide.

For years now, closing these achievement gaps has been a leading state and national priority. It would be possible to use the student growth measures to determine which approaches are working best, and then to spread those practices around the state. One place to start would be with the schools that seem to be doing the best job with low-income students.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz
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