Metro

State withholds English High’s MCAS math scores

State education officials withheld MCAS math results from Boston’s English High School as they released statewide scores Thursday, citing irregularities that require examination.

“I saw some anomalies in the scores on the math side that I want to review before we will release them,” Mitchell D. Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in a conference call with reporters in advance of the release.

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“I have no indication that cheating is involved,” Chester said.

The commissioner said the Jamaica Plain school appeared to be the only school in the state to have scores withheld. He declined to describe the reason for his concern and said he could not say when the scores will be released.

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The score suppression came as a surprise to Boston school officials, who learned of it a short time before the state provided MCAS data to media outlets.

Boston Superintendent Tommy Chang said the state did not tell him why the scores were withheld, adding that the School Department would cooperate fully with its review.

“We have every indication that English High School complied with all testing regulations and that protocols were properly followed,” Chang said. “My deep, deep concern . . . is that we have 11th-graders at English High School that do not have MCAS scores, and we know that that’s a required component for their graduation.”

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On Tuesday, in a meeting with Globe editors and reporters, Chang said English High 10th-graders saw a 14 percent increase in English scores and a 16 percent increase in math, progress that he credited to “deliberate partnerships, deliberate coordination, strong headmaster, focus over several years — and you see the results.”

Thursday’s statewide release includes only scores for the MCAS, which 46 percent of school districts elected to administer in grades 3 through 8. The other districts tried out the new PARCC exams, a possible replacement for the MCAS. The state did not release school-by-school results from that test.

English High, which proclaims itself the oldest public high school in the nation, has teetered on the brink of a state takeover for years. In an attempt to avoid receivership two years ago, the school brought in Blueprint Schools Network, a Newton nonprofit, to assist with academic improvement, including providing intensive math tutoring.

The first year of the partnership, the 2013-14 school year, MCAS scores dropped in both English and math, adding further pressure to improve this year’s scores.

The suppressed scores were an unusual note in statewide school results that showed modest gains on some measures and stagnation in others.

In Boston, most schools administered the PARCC test, so they were not included in the data released Thursday. Because the MCAS — Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System — remains a graduation requirement, most high schools statewide administered the older test.

Boston saw scores on the 10th-grade math and science exams rise by 3 percentage points, with 67 percent of students scoring advanced or proficient in math, and half scoring in those categories for science.

The city’s three exam high schools saw marked improvements in English scores. The Josiah Quincy Upper School saw gains in both math and English, while Tech Boston Academy declined slightly in English but improved in math.

This year’s scores are the first since 2009 in which more than half of Boston 10th-graders with disabilities scored proficient or better in English, according to the School Department. Students learning English improved their scores this year by 13 percentage points, with 62 percent designated proficient or advanced.

In Lawrence, which has been under a state-imposed receivership since 2012, scores were mixed, with some schools seeing double-digit growth in the number of students ranking advanced in English or math and others seeing double-digit losses.

“I continue to see Lawrence on the right track; I continue to see a lot of work ahead of us,” Chester said.

Thursday’s data are part of a gradual rollout of scores on the MCAS and the PARCC exams. Chester said that complete PARCC scores might not be released before an expected November vote by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on whether to adopt PARCC — Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the staggered release makes curriculum planning more challenging, and the uncertainty around the adoption of the PARCC tests worries some educators.

“There are a lot of unknowns, and those are anxiety producing, and we’re trying to work through them with the department,” Scott said.

Withholding MCAS scores is a rare move by the state. Education officials check for “statistical anomalies” each year before releasing MCAS data. If they find anomalies, the state will withhold those MCAS scores from the public and parents and launch a more formal inquiry, which could include visiting the school and analyzing multiple years of MCAS data.

In particularly alarming cases, the state will conduct an “erasure analysis” to determine whether a higher-than-usual rate of wrong answers were changed to correct answers.

Verifying cheating can be extremely difficult, state officials have said. Five years ago, the state and Boston school officials strongly suspected the Blackstone Elementary School in the South End had cheated on the MCAS, because students’ math scores skyrocketed shortly after the state declared the school “underperforming.”

While a state review was unable to confirm cheating, the state eventually invalidated the results, saying the scores lacked credibility. An erasure analysis found the rate of students changing answers in their booklets exceeded state averages.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com.
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