Amherst Regional High School drops in state ranking due to ‘clerical missteps’
AMHERST — Amherst Regional High School has slipped one notch in the state’s ranking system, but Principal Mark Jackson attributed the drop to a coding error while administering last spring’s state standardized tests and not to lower student achievement.
In fact, 10th-graders did well on the tests under the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, known as MCAS. In English, 93 percent were found advanced or proficient, compared to a state average of 88 percent, and 90 percent were in those two categories in math, with the state average 78 percent.
Nevertheless, ARHS was given a ranking of Level 3, which requires a higher level of state oversight than last year’s Level 2. Amherst appealed the ranking, but Jackson said a state official told him the appeal was denied.
“It’s an unflattering badge, but it’s easy for me to amass information that tells a very different picture of the high school,” Jackson said in an interview Thursday.
The school made “clerical missteps” in how it entered information about participation on MCAS for fewer than 10 students, he said. The percentage of Latino students who took the test was recorded by the state as 88 percent, below the 90 percent floor for Level 2 ranking.
“Level 3 isn’t a preferred place to be,” Jackson wrote in a memo to staff. “That this designation is a function of participation only takes some of the edge off. Hopefully, we’ve learned from our mistakes and, next year, participation will no longer be an issue.”
The school’s Progress and Performance Index, which considers student achievement and growth from the previous year, plus graduation and dropout rates, was solid, said Michael Morris, the director of educator evaluation and assessment analysis. The Level 3 designation had nothing to do with the school’s PPI, he said.
Northampton received a Level 3 ranking because Bridge Street Elementary School failed to meet gap-narrowing goals. Easthampton and Smith Vocational also received Level 3 rankings.
“I have to submit action plans specifying the steps we’re taking at the building level to guarantee that we’re not in this position again,” Jackson said. Morris said that regional centers are being set up to help districts in Levels 3 to 5, but Amherst will not be subject to the state audits required for Level 4 schools.
The lower ranking has had no impact on the school on a day-to-day basis, Jackson said.
“This isn’t what’s keeping me up at night,” he said. “Do I take Level 3 as an indictment of the school’s academic focus? No, I don’t. This is an easy fix. I would be concerned if we were Level 3 because of growth and achievement, but it’s about coding. We can resolve it without affecting kids.”
Amherst has had a reputation for high-quality schools, and real estate agents have pointed to them in encouraging people to buy houses there. But Jackson said no one around the town is talking about the school’s Level 3 ranking.
“How much feedback have we gotten on this issue? I haven’t had one person in the barber shop, the grocery store or on email mention it,” he said.
The Level 3 ranking will be in effect for one year, Jackson said. But anyone concluding that it represents a decline in standards should consider “a boatload of contravening evidence,” he said.
“I feel incredibly positive that there are patterns of high achievement and growth,” he said. “There are some issues that require our attention, like special education. I don’t want to soft-pedal the evidence of need, but there is a lot of redeeming evidence.”
Jackson said that ARHS is holding its own on the seven criteria that make up the state’s Progress and Performance Index. Asked whether he thought the demotion was fair, he declined comment.
“When you weigh clerical missteps with a body of evidence about academic achievement, it’s apparent that the Level 3 ranking becomes just a footnote because we just screwed up the paperwork,” he said.