After stagnant MCAS results, 6 more schools ‘underperforming’
Massachusetts education officials designated six more schools, including two in Boston, as “underperforming” on Friday, as they released the latest MCAS scores showing that statewide results were largely stagnant.
On the high-stakes 10th-grade exam, 88 percent of test-takers, the same rate as the previous year, passed the English, math, and science exams on their first try last spring — satisfying a state graduation requirement for tens of thousands of students.
Third-graders failed to budge years of low and static reading scores, with only 57 percent scoring proficient or advanced, the same rate as the previous year. Reading with proficiency at the end of third grade is considered a barometer of future academic success.
The annual announcement, which included results for individual schools and districts, contained some good news. State officials removed underperforming designations from four schools statewide, including the Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester, where students cheered the announcement. Another 42 schools were awarded commendations that cited their strong MCAS scores.
The state declined to place any schools into receivership this year, a sharp departure from last year, when it seized control of four schools for the first time without putting an entire school system into receivership.
But Commissioner Mitchell Chester issued a warning to Boston, threatening to take over the persistently low-performing Dearborn STEM Academy in the next few weeks if Boston fails to put together a turnaround plan to greatly accelerate achievement.
Instead of dwelling on the lack of notable movement between this year’s scores and the previous year, state officials touted trends in results over a longer period of time, which showed gaps in achievement narrowing among students of different socio-economic backgrounds.
“We are very proud of the fact that we have increased achievement across the board,” said Chester, stressing that “low achievement is not preordained.”
Scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams are stagnating for a variety of reasons, education experts say.
Many suburban districts have raised their scores so high that there is little room for growth. Other school systems are experiencing increases in student populations more challenging to teach, such as those from low-income households or learning to speak English.
The state could accelerate achievement by pursuing such measures as offering universal access to preschool and more funding to lengthen school days, said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
Nevertheless, this year’s scores are historic. It is the last batch to be released under the Patrick administration, and it might mark the last time state officials release MCAS scores for all schools in Massachusetts.
The state is considering replacing the MCAS with a new online testing system, which it started trying out in the spring with a small fraction of students statewide. No scores were released from that tryout.
The six newly identified underperforming schools are Dorchester Academy and the Henry Grew Elementary School in Boston; Elm Park Community School in Worcester; and three middle schools in Springfield, Forest Park, Van Sickle, and Duggan.
Those designations bring the total number of underperforming schools statewide to 36. Schools receive such a designation if they have consistently low test scores and other performance benchmarks.
A 2010 law change gives districts the ability to go around teacher union contract provisions to lengthen school days, dismiss teachers, and to make other changes at underperforming schools. Failure to improve puts them at risk of a state takeover.
Friday’s announcement created a stir at Springfield’s Van Sickle Middle School, one of the three Springfield schools deemed “underperforming.” Later in the day, a petition began circulating demanding that Chester reconsider the decision.
“We deserve a second look and our students deserve to be more than just a number on a standardized test,” said Brittany Blake, an eighth-grade English teacher spearheading the petition. “MCAS is such a flawed system.”
A possibility lingers the state might formally declare another school as underperforming: Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury. Chester said he is giving Boston a few weeks to pull together its overhaul plan for Madison Park, which has been marred by ongoing problems.
Chester said he declined to immediately declare Madison Park underperforming because its four-year graduation rate, which was 63.6 percent in 2013, was higher than some other high schools in Boston. Yet Madison Park’s MCAS scores declined sharply this year.
“We are focused on the schools that are the most troubling,” Chester said.
John McDonough, Boston’s interim superintendent, said he is confident the School Department will devise suitable plans for both Madison Park and the Dearborn. He also said he was not surprised the state designated the Grew and Dorchester Academy as underperforming because the schools were among dozens the School Department had identified internally for interventions.
Like state officials, McDonough highlighted a positive long-term trend in test results.
“More significantly, over a longer period of time you see significant growth rates in virtually every grade and a performance that exceeds statewide trends in every grade,” McDonough said.
He also noted that scores skyrocketed at UP Academy Dorchester, an in-district charter school that replaced the Marshall Elementary School last fall. In math, for instance, 60 percent of students scored proficient or advanced at UP, compared with 13 percent the previous year when it was the Marshall.
Charter school advocates seized upon the new round of MCAS scores to note that most charter schools outperformed the city’s school district average, and to push for opening more charter schools. Boston has reached a state-limit on how many charter schools can operate in the city, so a change in state law would be needed to increase their number, which the state Senate refused to support this summer.
“So many of our children are still being failed by the Boston school system,” Stacey Marlow, a charter school parent and Mattapan chapter leader with Families for Excellent Schools, a nonprofit pushing for more charter schools. “It’s disheartening.”
But there were smiles all around Friday morning at the Burke, on Washington Street. Students who gathered in the gymnasium erupted into cheers after headmaster Lindsa McIntyre told them the Burke would be the first high school in the state to shed its “underperforming” designation.
Students exchanged high-fives, while others danced as music blared from the loud speakers.
“Honestly, it makes me feel like anything is possible,” said Brandon Newton, 17, a senior, from Mattapan.
McIntyre became teary-eyed, even as she beamed.
“It’s been a long road,” she said, “but a great one.”
She vowed there would be no complacency, saying “we are just getting started.”
The Burke has long been the litmus test for the quality of education in Boston. During a State of the City address in the Burke’s auditorium in 1996, then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino famously challenged city residents to “judge me harshly” if his overhaul of the city’s schools failed.
Good news also found its way to Lawrence. Math scores there have climbed by the double digits at almost every grade level since the entire school system went into state receivership in 2011. Reading scores also have largely risen, although at a slower pace.
“We think we are onto something,” said Jeffrey Riley, Lawrence schools superintendent. “But with that said, we don’t think this is just about test scores.”