GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 21, 2013

City marks mixed on MCAS test

By Marjorie Nesin
Staff Writer

---- — EDITOR’S NOTE:

The initial version of this story referred to a fourth-grade math testing score that is incorrect. This is a corrected version.

Gloucester’s public school students showed improvement in English and language arts, according to new state MCAS test results outlined Friday.

And while city students fell below a state set goal, they also improved to meet state-set math goals across the school district.

But while students at Gloucester High School and Plum Cove Elementary delivered high marks, the tests showed that fewer than half the district’s fourth-graders across the city last spring tested as being “proficient” in math.

The state outlined goals to reduce learning “proficiency” gaps in school districts starting in 2012, based on Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, scores. The idea was to cut in half the number of students considered below “proficiency” levels by 2017, with a linear target set for each year, Superintendent of Schools Richard Safier reported in going over the available test scores Friday, with more figures still to come.

“Are we the best in the business? No,” Safier said. “But we are meeting our targets.”

In some cases, school administrators are noting sizable gains — like at O’Maley Innovation Middle School, where four out of five student subgroups scored above target performance. Students with “disabilities” fell just below their targeted goal, despite improving their scores.

At the high school, all groups fell below their target goals, though each population improved in performance overall.

“We’ve made sizable gains,” Safier said. “A lot of it has to do with the focus the school district placed on math over the past year.”

Safier said each teacher had been tasked with setting a personal teaching goal, setting a student math-based goal and developing a math assessment for the students.

Still, many of the scores for the tested grade levels — Grades 3 through 10 — fell below state averages in their percentage of proficient students.

The results showed, for example, that 43.2 percent of fourth-grade students in Gloucester’s public schools tested proficient in math, Safier said. That’s an improvement from the previous year, but still far below the statewide average of 52 percent of students who tested as proficient in school districts across the state.

Academics see drops in scores for fourth grade students statewide, according to Safier. Many, he said, have chalked it up to a major period of transition in learning, “when students go from learning to read to reading to learn.”

As a whole, the district was rated a Level 3 district on a scale of 1 to 5, with one being the best and five being the state’s worst performing schools and, in the case of Lawrence, for example, requiring a state takeover.

Citywide, Gloucester’s schools are considered at Level 3, Safier said, because Beeman and Veterans tested at that level — despite the fact that Gloucester High School and Plum Cove Elementary tested at Level 1 ratings, while the remaining schools turned out Level 2 scores.

“The district is rated based upon the lowest school,” Safier said.

The proficiency percentages range widely across the district at the elementary levels.

While 67 percent of Plum Cove Elementary students scored proficient or higher in English and Language Arts and 62 percent scored at that level in math, over at Veterans Memorial Elementary School, only 38 percent of students scored proficient or better in English and Language Arts and 42 percent scored that in math.

A further breakdown shows that “high needs status” students at Veterans, children who come from low income families, have learning disabilities or speak English as their second language, scored much lower than “non-high needs” students.

In the group of “high needs” students, 29 percent at Veterans scored proficient or higher in English and Language Arts, and 38 percent reached that level in math. Of the “non-high needs” students, 86 percent scored proficient or higher in English and Language Arts and 64 percent were considered proficient or higher in math.

“It’s our responsibility to find ways to strengthen our instruction for kids with high needs, but it’s a challenge,” Safier said.

For the first time in three years, the MCAS scores — drawn from tests taken last spring — do not include comparisons with the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School since that independent public shut down in January, before its students could take the tests.

Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at mnesin@gloucestertimes.com.