For several years now, Superintendent Paul Dakin has been bookending every gleaming report on the districtâ€™s MCAS scores with a complicated speech about the â€œfatal flawâ€ in the MCAS system.
When Revere schools made major jumps on test scores, he and his administrative staff were careful to acknowledge the success, but with a warning that such successes couldnâ€™t continue forever. There was only so much improvement that could be made, they said.
When Revere High School (RHS) sported national recognition for their scores, Dakin and others were careful to balance that highpoint with the idea that one day the school would run out of space to go any higher, despite the federal governmentâ€™s demand that results continue going upward.
This is the year that the â€œfatal flawâ€ has shown up on the districtâ€™s doorstep, with MCAS scores improving this year, but certainly not at the rate that they have in the past.
â€œAs compared to previous years on the MCAS, we have not seen as much improvement,â€ said Dakin this week. â€œThatâ€™s absolutely true. I could leverage reasons why, but I would rather not. Weâ€™ve got to start using growth data to measure our scores…We came out of the gate early and made gains quickly. We improved a lot early on and now there isnâ€™t much room for giant leaps in improvement, and itâ€™s putting us in a tough situation.â€
Added Assistant Superintendent Diane Kelley, â€œThe Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) formula worked well for a while. Weâ€™re at the point where weâ€™re at the peak of the fatal flaw in that formula.â€
The Fatal Flaw
For nearly a decade now, the state has measured schools and school districts using the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) formula. The idea was that, looking at scores from the previous year, the state would set a goal for each school and each sub-group (which consists of several racial, economic and bi-lingual groups). If a school and/or sub-group met that goal, then it was said to have â€œmadeâ€ AYP.
Revere Schools have been renowned for several years in making AYP almost across the board despite being an urban school with high levels of poverty. Now, however, making the required jumps are getting nearly impossible as most students have improved to acceptable levels and only a small percentage are left.
That small percentage, administrators say, are a tough group to improve, which is why so many schools in Revere did not make AYP this year – which means they have been labeled with a â€œstatus.â€
And itâ€™s not just a Revere problem.
Dakin and Kelley are quick to point out that 82 percent of the schools in the state now have a â€œstatus,â€ while 91 percent of the districts also have a â€œstatus.â€
That is exactly why itâ€™s called a â€œfatal flaw,â€ they said, because eventually everyone will fail under the AYP formula. It is, in school officialâ€™s words, a setup for failure.
â€œA natural improvement curve will go up and curve over at the top,â€ said Kelley. â€œThatâ€™s the problem. The federal government and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) expect you to go up and up and up without end. Itâ€™s just not human behavior. An improving school will go up and then curve over. Thatâ€™s the natural way improvement tracks.â€
Added Dakin, â€œWe used AYP all the time and we really liked it. It worked well for us, but we need something else now.â€
The Case for a Waiver
One example being touted by district officials is scores between the Lincoln School and the Whelan School.
The sub-group of non-English speakers at the Lincoln actually scored an 81 on the English test this year, but that was lower than the previous year, so the whole school got slapped with a â€œstatus.â€ Meanwhile, the same sub-group a the Whelan scored lower, a 79, but it was an improvement over the previous year so the entire school was able to meet AYP and got no â€œstatus.â€
â€œThe kids at the Lincoln actually scored higher than the kids at the Whelan, but the Lincoln still got penalized and got labeled because of that one sub-group – which as we said – actually scored higher on the test,â€ said Kelly. â€œThatâ€™s why we need something else here.â€
That something else is an AYP waiver that President Barack Obamaâ€™s administration has recently okayed. Each state in the nation can accept or decline that waiver, and it can only be done statewide. If a state does pursue a waiver, they have to show that they will measure progress with some other type of formula.
Currently, Massachusetts is pursuing the waiver and Dakin said he supports that idea as long as the state moves to measuring student improvement with what is called â€˜Student Growth Data,â€™ or SGP.
That measurement takes similar students – including factors like race, economics, and community-type – and measures those like students with one another over a period of three years.
With that kind of data, Dakin said, it will allow a more consistent evaluation of students and will also expose teachers that are not reaching their potential as well.
â€œIf we see a kid go up and up and up on the growth data year after year and then the kid dips when they get to a certain teacherâ€™s class, we have to ask whatâ€™s going on in that teacherâ€™s class,â€ he said. â€œIt eliminates excuses because itâ€™s an equal measure…It will be a new yardstick that will allow us to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. The apples to oranges comparisons we are using now are not as valid as this new growth data.â€
The flip side of the coin is that many parents nationwide – and some educators – believe that the waiver is a cop out, and possibly an open door for making excuses – something that has been denounced in the Revere Public Schools for a decade under its mantra that every kid can succeed.
Dakin disagreed that it was an opening for watering down the NCLB in the Revere schools.
â€œItâ€™s just the opposite because this new measure will take away the excuses of teachers,â€ said Dakin.
Formula Aside, Scores Are Down
All of that aside, the schools actually did take a step back in performance on the MCAS – especially in math. That was uncharacteristic because math has been a big strong suit for the district for so many years. Traditionally, it has been the English portion that fluctuated somewhat, but this time around math was a concern at almost all grade levels.
Using some of the new formulas to measure student performance, none of the district wide scores on the math test were above the state average.
Of the grade levels tested (which were 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10), none rose above the state average. Only grade three mathematics came close, missing out on the state average by one-tenth of a point.
At the school level, 12 of the 29 tests scored above the state average in math. Both the Paul Revere School and Whelan School tested above the state average in all math tests.
â€œDistrict wide, we didnâ€™t have any tests above the state average which is pretty disappointing,â€ said Kelley.
The Science test (for grades 5, 8 , and 10) proved equally disappointing, with no district wide results above the state average, and only 4 of 11 tests above the state average.
At the district wide English test, the results werenâ€™t a whole lot better, but didnâ€™t appear to slip in any great way.
Two tests were above the state average district wide, and 15 of 29 tests at the school level were above the state average.
The Paul Revere, Whelan and Lincoln Schools scored above the state average on every test.
At the middle school level, the Rumney Marsh Academy scored above the state average on five of the six total tests (both math and English).
At the high school, RHS still ranked among one of the best urban high schools in the state, which put them at a combined score that was ahead of places like Peabody, Malden, Winthrop and Haverhill. However, RHS did not score above the state average on the math, English or Science tests, and really didnâ€™t even come close.
â€œRHS is still at the top of its game, but in all honesty weâ€™re getting caught by the other urban schools,â€ said Dakin. â€œPeople are moving up to us.â€