Untangling MCAS in Southbridge

📷 Jeffrey Villar, Ph.D. Receiver of Southbridge Schools. Photo by Helen Boyle

By Sarah Champagne, Managing Editor

SOUTHBRIDGE – With the recent release of MCAS scores and accountability results for school districts in Massachusetts, familiar questions about the value of the test, or its potential disservice to students as claimed by some groups, has returned to the forefront public debate. For a district in receivership like Southbridge, the questions bring up other considerations.

This year, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released a new measure for districts which provides an accountability score in five possible categories: schools of recognition, meeting targets, partially meeting targets, focused/targeted support or broad/comprehensive support.

Schools in the first three categories (for the new accountability system)  are designated as “no assistance or intervention needed.” Designations in the latter two categories, focused/targeted support and broad/comprehensive support, put districts into the larger category of “needing assistance.” According to The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, only 15 percent of districts statewide fall into the “needing assistance” category.

The new accountability measure was developed in response to requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was signed into Federal law December 2015 and represented an update to the No Child Left Behind Act. The Every Student Succeeds Act required that individual states create an accountability system.

The new accountability ratings that Massachusetts families see this year are a function of that requirement. While the accountability ratings use MCAS scoring for its core data, they also include other factors such as progress and growth, progress toward English proficiency for English learners, absenteeism and completion of advanced coursework within the district. Individual schools in each district also receive a specific rating.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the benefits of these requirements include that it “advanced equity by upholding critical protections for America’s disadvantaged and high-need students” and that it “maintains an expectation that there will be accountability and action to effect positive change in our lowest-performance schools” (see description here).

Predictably, as the Southbridge school district is in receivership due to its designation as a chronically underperforming school, the accountability results for the 2017 – 2018 school year show that the district fell into the “in need of broad/comprehensive support” category and “needing assistance” (see results here).

Response to The New Accountability Scores

Several groups in Massachusetts have expressed criticism of the new accountability scores. The Massachusetts Teachers’ Association released a statement (here) alleging classist and racist bias in the new accountability system, in spite of the fact that the U.S. Department of Education’s claims that accountability requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act serve to “advance equity” and protect “America’s disadvantaged and high-needs students.”

The Massachusetts Teachers’ Association opens it statement by claiming that “The state’s new MCAS-based accountability system is as predictable and destructive as the old system. The results show that schools serving a high percentage of low-income students, English learners and students of color do not perform as well as those that serve more affluent students.”

The teachers’ association further alleges that the state designates districts as needing “targeted intervention” without sending resources to support improvement, and that accountability is needed for policymakers as much as it is for school districts, educators and students in struggling districts.

Citizens for Public Schools, a Boston-based organization, also released a statement that alleges that the accountability system is punitive and that it targets districts as needing intervention without sending resources to support improvement.

In a statement released after the current MCAS accountability results were revealed, Citizens for Public Schools stated, (see here) “It may seem reassuring that Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley says that ‘the idea behind identifying schools for targeted assistance was not intended to be punitive, but rather was an attempt to provide the support they need so students can thrive.’ Yet we know that there are not adequate resources for the state and certainly not for the districts serving our most needy students.”

Citizens for Public Schools is a group which focuses much of its advocacy on reducing emphasis on standardized testing in Massachusetts public schools, which it claims is “largely driven by a school’s socioeconomics.” The group calls one of its major initiatives the “less testing, more learning campaign” and publishes a blog on its website called “Life Under MCAS.” It’s public statement on MCAS accountability results also implies that in Lawrence, another district in receivership, students are required to take the MCAS before they are proficient in English, skewing the district results.

So how do Southbridge Schools fit into this picture? How should Southbridge look at MCAS accountability results and MCAS testing when the town is not even categorized in its own district but in a “strategic transformation” district consisting of schools in receivership?

In the 2017 – 2018 school year, the Southbridge Schools public profile with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education indicated that Southbridge students were 79.9 percent high needs, 70.9 percent economically disadvantaged and that for 34.7 percent of students, English was not their first language.

Dr. Jeffrey Villar, receiver of Southbridge Schools, says that the MCAS is a proven, statistically valid measure of whether or not students are learning, but he also says that the test is not the only valid measure of teaching and learning in a district. He says that the test has been “carefully crafted” to give an accurate snapshot of student learning.

“Statisticians took a lot of time crafting the tests,” Villar says. “The underlying assumption is that if students are making an effort and they still don’t do well on the test, that they don’t have the skillset and knowledge that the test measures.”

Villar takes exception to the claims of several groups that the test underserves minorities, Latino/a populations in particular.

“As a Hispanic person myself, I am offended when people say we are supposed to have lower scores,” he says. Villar is of Cuban descent.

Villar says that while the MCAS is a statistically sound measure that he has confidence in for measuring educational success, it is important to focus first on other success indicators or conditions that indirectly lead to better MCAS scores and deeper learning of the curriculum.

“There is a lot that I need to focus on before I can look at the end result or the MCAS,” Villar remarks of the role of MCAS in a district working toward turnaround.

“It’s not about the test. The test measures progress, but let’s focus on our curriculum and culture and climate improvements first. Over time, that will lead to improvements in the testing,” Villar remarks.

Villar also acknowledges the challenges of testing English language learners, who may take the MCAS before they are completely fluent in the English language, but affirms the necessity of taking the test regardless.

“It cuts two ways. First, English learner students may not have the academic level language that is needed to demonstrate knowledge on the test. However, if you don’t take the test, you don’t have the data to show a need that exists,” he explains.

Villar reports that from the perspective of learning any language, full interpersonal or conversational fluency could take one to three years. A more robust level of fluency, which Villar describes as “academic language that cuts more precisely” into the lexicon, takes closer to seven to 10 years to master.

Villar reflects on the tension between his assertion that the MCAS is a valuable statistical model and the experience of English language learners, economically disadvantaged students and other groups that may struggle.

“What we should discuss is, what is the center ground? To talk about the purpose of the test, to measure quality of the general system while being conscious of how we look at the test and challenging populations,” Villar reflects.

Check back with The Citizen Chronicle for future articles exploring MCAS terms, DESE and schools in Southbridge.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.