The number of Massachusetts public schools securing the top spot under the state’s rating system has dropped significantly, as schools in well-to-do suburbs such as Andover, Newton, and Winchester see their coveted top rankings disappear.
This year, 424 schools received the “Level 1” rating, representing just more than a quarter of all schools rated statewide, according to this year’s MCAS data. That is down notably from 510 schools two years ago, when the state introduced the five-tier rating system for school performance.
For many towns, a loss of Level 1-rated schools seems paradoxical. Although those schools are turning out among the highest MCAS scores in the state, they are being tripped up by a requirement demanding gains from students who have lagged furthest behind.
Schools must cut in half gaps in achievement among students of different racial, academic, or socioeconomic backgrounds by 2017. Schools must demonstrate progress each year in reaching that goal to attain the top rating. The requirement applies to both MCAS scores and high school dropout rates.
In the super-competitive suburbs, the rating drops are raising wide-ranging questions, from what the declines say about educational quality to whether the state is relying too heavily on test scores — and splicing it too many ways — to accurately judge school performance.
The state moved Winchester High School down to Level 2 this fall, even though 100 percent of its 10th-graders scored proficient or advanced on the MCAS English test and 99 percent performed at those levels on the math test. The school slipped because slightly fewer than the required 95 percent of students took the MCAS.
The move came one year after the US Department of Education named Winchester High a “Blue Ribbon School” for its high academic achievement and diverse program offerings.
“I don’t think we should measure student success solely by test scores,” said Caren Connelly, a parent of a Winchester High graduate who remains active in education issues. “Public schools need to be teaching our students how to think independently, how to access and evaluate information, and how to collaborate successfully. Standardized tests don’t do much to measure those skills.”
Winchester High is among four schools with a Level 2 rating in that system.
Elsewhere, Newton saw its number of Level 2 schools jump to 15 this year, from nine two years ago. Milton has gone from having all Level 1 schools two years ago to having just one this year, and in Andover all but two of its schools are now Level 2. None of those systems had ratings below Level 2. Some urban systems, such as Boston, also saw steep declines in Level 1 schools, dropping from 22 last year to 15 this year.
The difficulties schools face in meeting the state mandate could reflect the fallout from budget cuts during the recession, forcing reductions in classroom aides and other academic supports, said Richard Robison, executive director of Federation for Children With Special Needs, a national nonprofit in Boston.
“With that said, we can’t let up in our commitment to make sure all our students achieve at high levels,” Robison said.
The state still considers academic programs at Level 2 schools to be sound for the most part, but encourages them to bolster instruction for high-needs students. These schools face no consequences if they don’t make changes, and those with high test scores run no risk of dropping down to Level 3, which is reserved for schools with the lowest MCAS scores.
But Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said many schools overhaul instruction because they want the best education for their students and often want the top rating.
“Having that Level 1 status is a badge of honor for many schools,” Chester said.
The state created the five-level rating system under a waiver from the US Department of Education after the agency provided states the choice to opt out from the No Child Left Behind accountability system, long criticized for over-identifying schools in trouble. In Massachusetts, more than 80 percent of its schools received some kind of negative designation, even though the state is number one on many national tests.
Massachusetts’ new system focuses most heavily on schools with the lowest MCAS scores, known as Level 3 and most often found in cities. The state has moved a few dozen of those schools it deemed “underperforming” into an even lower category, Level 4, and this year seized control of four schools with chronically low test scores, sinking to Level 5. Interim Superintendent John McDonough cautioned that the rating system “is not the only indicator of success,” noting that many wonderful things are happening in schools. But he added he supports the high bar for achievement.
Newton school officials wonder whether the shrinking pool of Level 1 schools might be due to the state adopting national academic standards, which schools are still adjusting to. But they also said they are committed to ensuring high-needs students get the appropriate supports.
“At the end of the day, people need to trust and have confidence in the schools,” said David Fleishman, Newton schools superintendent.
Milton, which has been scrutinizing testing data to identify ways to help students, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on additional supplies and materials, extended school days, Saturday programs, two new reading specialists, and a preschool pilot program.
“I want every child in Milton public schools to achieve,” said Superintendent Mary Gormley. “Some students need more time. Some need targeted instruction.”