Metro

Schools struggle to explain MCAS changes as parents receive scores

Fourth-grader Abigail Nam, 10, raised her hand at Kittredge Elementary School in North Andover. The school’s test numbers declined.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Fourth-grader Abigail Nam, 10, raised her hand at Kittredge Elementary School in North Andover. The school’s test numbers declined.

NORTH ANDOVER — Year after year, MCAS results suggested that Kittredge Elementary School had oodles of budding mathematicians. Sometimes almost half the students in grades 3-5 scored “Advanced” on the math exams.

But under the state’s revamped version of the MCAS this year, the school is adjusting to a new reality: Just 18 percent of students taking the math exams landed in the new top category, “Exceeding Expectations.”

Across Massachusetts, most schools experienced a comparable drop on the new test for grades 3-8 last spring. More changes are on the way. A revamped high school exam is expected to premiere in two years.

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Now, school administrators are stuck with the complicated job of trying to explain to parents why the new MCAS has in many cases delivered dramatically lower scores — and why this should not be perceived as a reflection of diminishing school quality. Many schools have embarked on these conversations over the past two weeks to reassure worried parents who are receiving their children’s MCAS scores.

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They can be especially sensitive conversations in the ultra-competitive climate of the suburbs, where families have often used MCAS scores in deciding where to buy a house. Schools districts for more than a decade have focused intently on pushing as many students as possible into the advanced categories in a show of academic prowess.

In explaining the changes to her community and in sharing her own frustrations, North Andover Superintendent Jennifer Price has opted for a sports metaphor.

“The state moved the goal post,” Price said in an interview. “We did all this work with our kids to move them down the field and thought we were on a certain yard line. Now we are 20 yards back. It’s hard to explain to our families and it’s hard to keep our staff encouraged.”

State education officials have been billing this year’s MCAS results as a “reset.” The state redesigned the MCAS so it can be taken on computers. Officials also wanted more questions to gauge whether students at each grade level are on track to be ready for college and the workplace.

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Consequently, the state has advised against comparing them against the old test. But many school officials statewide argue that is tough, if not impossible, to do. The old results are the lens through which many parents and communities have viewed their schools.

“The state is trying to spin it and say don’t think about the past — this is a new start and we are moving forward,” said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

Complicating matters further: The state has repeatedly contradicted its own advice by comparing the new results against the old MCAS scores and to other exams.

For instance, state education officials have suggested that the old MCAS was too easy because so many students scored “proficient” and “advanced” and that the new results, which showed about half of students meeting or exceeding expectations, are a better reflection of reality.

To back up that assertion, state officials then pointed to the state’s performance on another standardized test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, saying those results were similar to the new MCAS scores.

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Kittredge educators began talking with some parents individually Tuesday during parent-teacher conferences, and on Wednesday administrators made a presentation to about two dozen parents at a PTO meeting.

School officials focused on the positives. Like many suburban schools, the Kittredge scored well above state averages in English and math, and more fourth-graders scored in the top two categories on the math exam last spring than they did the year before (although fewer of them landed in the highest category).

“A lot of students missed the next ranking by two or three points,” said Principal Richard Cushing.

But some parents said they were confused by all the changes to the new test.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Stephanie Katz, copresident of the PTO.

“Were the questions different?” asked Dana Woodford, whose son took the test last spring. “Do we know why the test scored so differently this year?”

The first question was easy for school officials to answer. Under the new MCAS, they said, students must not only answer questions correctly but in many cases they also need to explain how they arrived at their answers.

But school officials were less sure about why students scored differently. The new MCAS, like the old one, is based on grade-level standards for English and math, which largely rely on those developed under the Common Core, an effort by a group of states to generate a uniform set of standards. Massachusetts adopted those standards in 2010 and recently revised them for this school year.

Some superintendents statewide have been skeptical about the results since the state released the results in October, Scott said, because at every grade level and in each subject the scores were so similar — only about half of all students met or exceeded expectations. The lack of variation has raised questions about whether the results were engineered.

State officials defended the results, saying they were based on a rigorous “standard setting” process involving 125 educators who average 15 years of experience. The educators met in August and took the MCAS. Then they envisioned imaginary “borderline meeting expectation” students and went through each question to surmise how many points they would score. That, in turn, set the bar for meeting expectations.

The process sparked debate. For instance, what teachers at one grade level expected “meeting expectation” students to know on the MCAS needed to be consistent with what teachers at the next grade level expected of those students when they advance to their classrooms.

“That’s why you see uniformity in results,” said Bob Lee, the state’s MCAS chief analyst, noting the old MCAS looked at each grade-level test in isolation, creating widely different results.

Back at the Kittredge, which Governor Charlie Baker visited just a year ago to celebrate its consistently strong MCAS scores, administrators and teachers continue to tweak their curriculums to make sure they are covering everything students will be tested on.

This year, Kittredge introduced the Eureka math program, which aims to help students to understand and explain how they arrived at their answers.

In a first-grade classroom after lunch Wednesday, teacher Katie Barnett, using the new program, gave her two dozen students a word problem to solve:

Marcus has nine strawberries. Six are small. The rest are big. How many are big? Circle the mystery number and write a sentence to answer the question.

Nearly all students got the question right, circling the number 3 on their dry erase boards. Then the teacher called on students to explain their answers. One boy said he started at 9 on his number line and then “hopped” backwards six times landing on 3.

Sarah Tanaki, a parent, said that she is not going to let the new test change her perception of the school.

“A test is only one measure of a school,” she said. “I think what you see happening day to day reveals more.”

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.