Educators: Study needed to understand MCAS results

  • Two students in a fourth-grade class in Northampton’s Bridge Street School use an iPad to research penguins in 2015. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 9/28/2018 1:10:59 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Local educators are responding to newly released standardized test scores, saying that it’s necessary to delve deeper into the data and broader context of the test to fully understand those results.

The state released results Thursday for the computer-based MCAS, a new version of which was administered this year to students in grades 3 through 8 for only the second time. The old “legacy” test was also given to 10th graders, and the old science, technology and engineering test was given to fifth- and eighth-graders, though a new test will be released next year for high schoolers. The state also released a new accountability ranking system.

Results in Hampshire County varied widely, with schools like Westhampton Elementary receiving a high percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations in English and math, and others like Center School in Easthampton with a low percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations.

But school officials cautioned strongly that those numbers don’t tell a complete picture, and that a more nuanced look at the data and a school’s particular situation is needed to fully understand what amounts to one snapshot of a school’s achievement. The state’s largest teachers union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, has written off the test completely.

“We have so many students with so many issues and so many concerns going on in their day-to-day lives. If you have a student who is worrying where they’re going to sleep that night, I doubt he or she is going to be prepared for the MCAS the next morning,” Hampshire Regional Superintendent Aaron Osborne said. “We have many students throughout the state, throughout the country, who go without those things on an alarmingly regular basis.”

Osborne said he is proud of his schools, teachers and students for their positive results. Westhampton Elementary, for example, was one of only 52 schools in the state to receive the highest “schools of recognition” accountability designation. He said the real story lies beyond the percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations.

“I really wish we could encourage people to dig into the material,” Osborne said, adding that people should also be asking what poverty and English-language learner rates look like in a district, “because those are really mitigating factors.”

MTA President Merrie Najimy touched on similar points.

“Any educator in Massachusetts could have told you what the results would be ahead of time, because what we know is that MCAS scores are directly tied to three things: the race of the student, their family income and the amount of school funding they do or don’t receive,” Najimy said.

Some superintendents painted a more nuanced picture, pointing to more granular data in their district’s schools. Northampton Superintendent John Provost, for example, said he thinks it is important to look at how many schools and subgroups of students were exceeding expectations, and how students have improved over time.

“Some of the largest gains were achieved by some of our lowest-performing subgroups, especially our Hispanic and Latino students who exceeded expectations on one or more sub test at each school except RK Finn Ryan Road, where there are not enough students to form a subgroup,” Provost wrote in an email.

Osborne, of Hampshire Regional, also said looking at improvements is the most valuable component of the MCAS. He said that public schools, unlike private schools, take in every single student who shows up at the door and work with them from where they begin.

“There are a lot of situational scenarios,” he said. “We, Hampshire Regional, our member schools don’t have a high percentage of (English-language learner) students … As wonderful as many of our scores are and our achievements are in our district, I would really encourage people to read beyond that first level.”

A district that does have a large percentage of students learning English as a second language is Amherst, where 16.5 percent of students are categorized as English-language learners.

“How do they interact with the test?” Amherst Superintendent Michael Morris asked. “Is that a valid measure of how students are acquiring English? ... We have a lot of questions about the validity of that.”

The state’s overhauled accountability rankings do take into consideration progress a school makes teaching English to non-native speakers, as well as how schools reduce chronic absenteeism and whether they are offering college-level courses in high school.

The accountability system is largely based, however, on MCAS results. Rankings can also be affected by the number of students opting out of the test, as was the case at several schools in Amherst and Northampton.

Morris said he sees the test as more useful on the level of an individual student, and how that student grows. He said the test is useful though imperfect as a snapshot of how students are progressing. But it is just a snapshot, he said, and one that doesn’t take into consideration a student’s social-emotional growth, for example.

“How they enter the world is a little more broad than what can be measured on a standardized test,” Morris said.

The state, for its part, will also be looking at progress on the test, but not this year. Because this is only the second year of the new MCAS test, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, is considering this year’s results as more baseline data, and is not identifying trends.

“It’s hard to find trends because it’s so new,” state education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said Wednesday on a conference call with reporters. “And you can’t compare it to the old system.”

That old system is still around for 10th graders, as is the old science, technology and engineering test for 5th and 8th graders. And for those high schoolers, the MCAS must be passed in order to graduate, so educators like Osborne said they are more concerned with individual performance than growth when students take that test.

Statewide, the results among 10th graders were mostly the same as last year: 91 percent of students got advanced and proficient scores in English and 74 percent in science. In math, 78 percent were advanced or proficient — a drop of one percentage point from last year.

With a new MCAS test rolling out next year for high schoolers, school districts will have to grapple with a new exam that decides whether a student graduates or not.

“I don’t favor having a single all-or-nothing test to determine whether a student graduates from high school or not,” Osborne said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at


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