The state has released results of the Spring, 2017, MCAS tests, and the local scores in Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire regional school districts do not, overall, give cause for any celebration.
Both districts piloted the new “Next Generation” MCAS test, which now distributes student scores into four categories: Exceeds Expectations, Meets Expectations, Partially Meets Expectations, Does Not Meet Expectations. BHRSD’s lowest scores are those from 3rd grade reading, which were, as one school committee member put it, “alarmingly low.” Only 15 percent of BHRSD third graders met or exceeded expectations in reading ability, compared to a state average of 47 percent, with 25 percent meeting the same threshold in SBRSD.
Also low were 5th grade Math scores in SBRSD, with 13 percent meeting or exceeding expectations against a state average of 46 percent. In BRHSD, 29 percent met that same threshold. On the good news side, BHRSD’s 6th graders exceeded their statewide counterparts 63 percent to 51 percent on the English Language Arts test, and SBRSD’s fourth graders outdid their peers 60 percent to 49 percent in Math. The rest of the scores come in all over the place, with none quite meeting or exceeding state averages.
Counterpart schools in Berkshire County fared better, on the whole. Pittsfield Public Schools’ 3rd grade reading scores were just slightly off the state average, with 44 percent meeting or exceeding expectations. Of the low scores, community member, volunteer and BHRSD parent Erik Bruun said, “Test scores like that shatter the story we tell ourselves about who we are. I can imagine how it would be disorienting information to take in and try to understand.”
School officials are sober but circumspect about the results. Mary Berle, principal at Muddy Brook Elementary School, acknowledged, “We are significantly off the county and state this year compared with previous years. There are not celebrations of these scores. The school’s focus this past spring was on boosting student participation in sitting for the test, and less on actual test-taking preparation. We almost pretended it [the test] didn’t exist, and that wasn’t great for us. We did get more people participating, but we also need to have an ethos that ‘this actually matters’.” She said she has been in conversation with the district’s Director of Curriculum and Learning, Kristi Farina, about ways to revamp the school’s internal assessments to line up more with the questions students will likely encounter on the tests, and will generally be reassessing their approach to test-taking.
BHRSD School Committee member Dan Weston expressed “grave concern” and special frustration with the reading approach the school has been taking, noting that a decade ago the school was near the top of the county in reaching achievement. (In 2006, on the old, less rigorous MCAS test, 67 percent of Muddy Brook students scored proficient, compared to 58 percent of 3rd graders statewide.) Weston suggested that teachers are not with students as much as they ought to be, a suggestion picked up by fellow member Richard Dohoney, who asked whether there is an excess of outside-the-classroom meetings and trainings going on that keep teachers away.
Asked how sanguine she is about this coming year’s test, Berle said, “I feel that we will improve and get credit for improving next year when the tests count. We have a lot of kids with high needs, though.”
The state calculates “high needs” students as those who are designated as having a disability, current or recent English Language Learners, or economically disadvantaged (which used to be termed low income). Muddy Brook’s economically disadvantaged rate has gone more or less up each year, spiking at 36 percent in 2013 and 2014, and now stands at 33 percent. The number of students with disabilities has also shot up over the past couple of years, from 15 percent in 2015, to 22 percent in 2016. The overall Massachusetts student poverty average this year is lower that Muddy Brook’s, at 30 percent. In 2006, the year Muddy Brook far exceeded their state peers in reading, 22 percent of Muddy Brook’s kids were low income.
Muddy Brook’s high needs rate now stands at 48 percent. The third grade cohort that performed so poorly on last year’s MCAS was the struggling group that prompted school staff to request funding from the school committee to put in place a therapeutic program. That program is now, as of September, staffed by a full-time special education teacher, part time clinician, and two paraprofessionals. Berle believes we’ll see the benefits of these and other shifts over the next few years. “The rapid shift in our population is inviting our staff to learn a new set of skills. Our therapeutic program is working, but we need time to catch up.”
Participation rates in the MCAS tests have also, in recent years, become an issue in local districts, as parents have chosen to opt their children out of tests entirely. This year, BHRSD has been designated at Level 3 (with one being highest and four lowest) due to a participation level below 90 percent among one sub-group, Multi-Race/ Non-Hispanic. (Out of 25 students in that category in the district, 20 were tested, or 81 percent.)
Undermountain Elementary in the Southern Berkshire District was in the same position, tagged a Level 3, because only 28 out of 32 students, or 88 percent, took the English and Math tests. In order to reach a Level 1 status, schools must report at least 95 percent of students participating in tests, in every sub-group, which includes racial status, as well as special education, economic and second language learner status.
As BHRSD superintendent Peter Dillon pointed out, a Level 3 status for participation is “a label, and nothing else.” This year, with the shift to the new test, BHRSD is held harmless for its scores. Next year, the scores will count, and the schools will be leveled according to performance.
Asked about the new tests and participation issues, Southern Berkshire Regional School District superintendent Beth Regulbuto pointed out the numbers of students involved. “When you are as small as we are, 1 or 2 kids make a huge difference.”
As for their approach to the new more difficult state tests, she said, “You teach and the test should not be a hurdle. We can only say that it’s not a huge emphasis for us, but it is one tool. I think people understand that we don’t teach to the test, or teaching them how to beat the test. It’s a whole new game, but it is one measurement on one day, just one piece of data to make sure our kids are learning what they need to learn. I appreciate that they are changing the rigor, but we need time to adjust to that. If we continue to teach, the test won’t be an issue in the long term.”
She stressed recent research on the relationship between student success and “soft” skills. “How do you teach resilience and perseverance? This is the good time to try and fail. We have to teach them if it doesn’t work, you continuously improve.”
Unfortunately, there are not as yet ways to assess the growth of resilience or perseverance in a child over time. As BHRSD’s Weston noted, “I don’t think we can look at this, see that only 16 percent of third graders can read, and think that’s a fair representation of what’s going on. But relative to other districts, it’s all we have to compare ourselves to.”