UMass expert Stephen Sireci sees mostly 'good news' in latest MCAS test scores
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Stephen G. Sireci has been tracking MCAS scores since the state began using the annual student achievement test in 1988. Recently, Sireci, a psychometrician who directs the Center for Educational Assessment at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has raised concerns in a Sept. 12 Gazette story and elsewhere about the student growth percentile measure used to rank schools. He says the tool needs more study to prove it can accurately gauge student progress. State education officials express confidence in the new growth yardstick. We spoke with Sireci after the latest MCAS results were released in September, showing some of the highest scores in the test’s history. Some 552,549 public school students in grades three through 10 took the MCAS last spring. Most area schools held their own against statewide averages, though there were areas of low performance. Here are excerpts from the interview:
Gazette: What is your overall response to the latest MCAS scores?
Sireci: Massachusetts is making progress. There is evidence the system is actually working. The achievement gap is narrowing and that’s good news. The only qualification I would make is that the state is talking about student progress made since 2008. I would track it from 2001, when passing the MCAS was first required for graduation. I think that makes a real difference in how students perform.
Q. What do you think of the state’s new five-level ranking system for schools? Does that work better than the previous system showing which schools made “adequate” progress toward having all students test on grade level by 2014?
Sireci: Something had to be done because having all students be proficient by 2014 just wasn’t going to happen. We’ll have to see how this new system works out. There are other things to look at like graduation rates, attendance rates and which students are taking advanced classes.
Q. Are you still concerned about the use of the student growth percentile tool, which compares how students score on MCAS relative to academic peers across the state?
Sireci: I’ve been contacted by several people since the Gazette story came out. One was a principal of an elementary school who said, ‘These SGP results make no sense and contradict other things I know about my school.’ The state told them they just didn’t understand the figures. I’m still worried they are trying to do too much with the SGPs. We’re having a conference next month that will present some of this research. (For details go online to UMass “Ronference.”)
Q. What about the new “high needs” subgroup the state has created to track achievement gaps between all students and those who are low-income, receive special education services or are English language learners?
Sireci: One of the advantages of No Child Left Behind was focusing on the subgroup level. The problem was, some schools had more subgroups than others so they had more hoops to jump through. The high-needs group does make sense. Anything that’s going to make the criteria across the schools more uniform is a good thing.
Q. How do you interpret results showing that students at many charter schools are scoring higher on MCAS statewide than those in regular public schools?
Sireci: Well, it’s not like you are randomly assigning students to charter schools. Parents have to apply and they are often more involved parents. It’s hard to take the test results and say that charter schools are better. It’s more complicated than that.
Q. As a parent of children in the Northampton schools, what specifically do you look at when these scores come out?
Sireci: I look at how the scores at schools that my children attend compare to the state. And I look at how they compare to Amherst, which is one of the better districts in our area. I want to see them making improvements so I can feel good about sending my children to Northampton.
Detailed information about school and district MCAS scores can be found at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s website under the “school profiles” link.
DataTracker is an occasional column in Classrooms exploring how public schools in the region are using standardized tests and other assessments to improve student learning.