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Southern Berkshire School District to appeal DOE downgrade  

“We should be celebrating the fact that when they get to high school, our students are leading the pack. Teachers do above and beyond. It’s not about a damn test; it’s about the kids.” --- Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee member Charlie Flynn

Sheffield — The South Berkshire Regional School District held a special School Committee meeting on Thursday night to discuss results of the 2016 MCAS and PARCC tests and steps to be taken in response to the district’s downgrade from a Level 2 to Level 3.

Although 10th graders did very well across the board on the legacy MCAS English, Math and Science tests, with 100 percent student participation, the district as a whole was demoted by the state Department of Education, and Undermountain Elementary School was demoted to Level 3 as well, due to lower than state-mandated test participation rates in the fifth and eighth grades. (Schools are rated with a level from 1-5, with 1 as the highest, and 5 the lowest.) Taking the only action available to the district at this time, Superintendent David Hastings will soon be sending an appeal letter to the state’s accountability office.

SBRSD Superintendent David Hastings. Photo: David Scribner
SBRSD Superintendent David Hastings. Photo: David Scribner

Hastings pointed out that the Level 3 ranking used to refer only to the academically lowest 20 percent of districts in the state, but that the designation has been expanded to include those districts with a lower than 90 percent test participation rate, averaged among the 5th, 8th and 10th grades. Hastings defended the participation requirement, calling it a “good rule” which protects kids from “unscrupulous schools who encourage certain kids to stay home on test days.” He also made it clear that the district uses the information gleaned from the tests to inform instruction, and “to try to get better every year.”

He told the School Committee Thursday that he had assumed at first that the main problem for SBRSD this year would be with the New Marlborough School numbers, where nearly 50 percent of families opted their children out of testing. But because the classes in New Marlborough were all under 20 students, as far as the state is concerned, “New Marlborough isn’t even on the table.” As school committee member Vito Valentini put it, the school is “invisible,” and as Committee Board Chairman Carl Stewart of Alford further pointed out, it would not matter if every single kid stayed home on test day or every single kid took the tests and aced them in New Marlborough, it would still be “a stealth school, under the radar.”

The problem, apparently, was at Undermountain School, among one sub-set of 5th grade students on one Science and Technology test. The “High Needs” category includes economically disadvantaged, English Language Learners and Special Education students. There were 23 students in the 5th grade’s High Needs subgroup, and only 20 took the Science test, which is 86 percent.

In seeking an explanation from the state for the district-wide penalization, when Berkshire Hills’ Muddy Brook Elementary School — but not the whole district — had also been demoted from Level 2 to Level 3 for participation reasons, Hastings sought out staff from the state accountability office. DOE spokesperson Erica Gonzalez informed him that the state used a two-year average to assess district scores. The averages are for test participation across the 5th, 8th and 10th grades, from 2015 and 2016. In 2015, 28 out of 29, or 97 percent of those students participated in testing, and in 2016, 26 out of 32, or 81 percent participated. Together those two average out to 89 percent, just beneath the 90 percent threshold.

Hastings intends to draft an appeal letter to the state based on the fact that one of those 8th graders had been absent all year to due to an illness. (Normally medically excused students make up tests.) If that one student’s absence were erased from the record, the entire district’s participation rate would edge above 90 percent, and would go from a Level 3 back up to a Level 2. There is no set format for an appeal letter, and October 14th is the deadline.

Hastings made clear throughout the meeting that his priority was not the ranking so much as ensuring that the school was working hard to improve the scores of those and other students, saying they want to use the test to “refine curriculum, refine instruction,” adding, “We want to help our most struggling kids reach their full potential.”

Sheffield School Committee member Vito Valentini.
Sheffield School Committee member Vito Valentini.

Both he and Mount Everett High School principal Glenn Devoti shared the good news about their 10th grade scores. Hastings praised the district for, “Knocking the ball out of the park.” Devoti explained that “in three of the last four years, we’ve been part of a 22-way tie for best in the state on the English test, we’re 57/300 school statewide in Math, and 31/300 statewide in Science.” One hundred percent of the district’s 10th graders scored Proficient or higher on the MCAS English test, 91 percent on the Math test, and 96 percent on Science.

Several committee members commented on the ironies and absurdities in the situation. Stewart said, “If we’d had 10th graders opting out, it would be worse than failing,” noted committee member Dennis Sears of Sheffield. “You’re penalized more for opting out than for failing to educate kids.” And Bonnie Sayers spoke of the morale problem that’s a result of kids staying home. “That can have such an impact on our wonderful staff.”

Hastings does not believe that the state’s District and School Assistance Center will be interested in intervening in a successful school that’s at the 70th or so percentile for performance, while most of their caseload of struggling schools is at the 6-7th percentile. Vito Valentini wanted to know why, if the state had no mechanism for dealing with SBRSD as a Level 3 district, they made it a Level 3 district. The consensus opinion was that the state demoted the district as a punitive measure, making it a “scarlet letter issue,” as New Marlborough representative Francoise Lartigue put it, and did not really intend to provide a lot of oversight and interventions.

Committee member Charles Flynn of Egremont praised the district’s teaching staff and indicated the successes students have as they move through the grades. “Kids take off as they get to 10th grade. We should be celebrating the fact that when they get to high school, they’re leading the pack. Teachers do above and beyond. It’s not about a damn test; it’s about the kids,” Flynn pointed out.

Lartigue also bemoaned the fact that the conversation isn’t more positive, stressing these successes rather than the bad news. “We’re performing really well,” committee member Maria Rundle agreed, and also gave credit to Hastings for working hard to figure out the “game.” She added: “I regret that it takes so much of your time.” She wanted to know what the power relationship was, “who’s to gain in this game with our district. This isn’t going to go away; we weren’t alone in that targeted message.” (Statewide, 41 individual schools reported lower than 90 percent participation rates.)

As Valentini put it, incredulously, “If it had been two children absent instead of three, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. That’s a thin slice of logic.”

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