2018 MCAS: Education trends tough to detect due to new system, officials say

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Four Massachusetts schools are no longer designated as underperforming, and that label will not be newly applied to any schools or districts this year, education officials announced as they released 2018 MCAS scores and school accountability ratings.

This year marked the first time the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education used a new accountability system to measure how schools and districts are performing and what support they may need.

“It’s hard to find trends because it’s so new, the system, and you can’t compare it to the old system,” Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley told reporters on a conference call. He said, “To underscore this point, I have decided to name no new underperforming schools or districts this year. I think the schools and districts need time to breathe and we need time to assess this system in a deep way.”

The John Winthrop Elementary School in Boston, Elm Park Community School in Worcester, and Springfield’s Chestnut Accelerated Middle School and Milton Bradley Elementary School are all exiting “underperforming” status under the new system, which education officials said provides a more comprehensive picture of school performance and complies with the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Rob Curtin, the associate commissioner for data and accountability, said the new system is “primarily built around improvements.” It is largely focused around MCAS results, he said, but also includes additional measures of factors like the percentage of students who are chronically absent, the progress attained by English language learners, and the percentage of students taking advanced coursework at the high school level.

“Primarily we’re looking at, are schools moving in the correct direction,” Curtin said.

Overall, 74 percent of schools and 90 percent of districts were classified as “not requiring assistance or intervention.” Fourteen percent of schools and 7 percent of districts were designated “requiring assistance or intervention.” The department lacked sufficient data to classify 12 percent of schools and 3 percent of districts.

Statewide, 52 schools were recognized as “schools of recognition” for high achievement, high growth, or exceeding targets.

This year was the second that students in grades three through eight were tested using the new “next-generation” MCAS. High school students took the original “legacy” MCAS exam, and the new tests are expected to be introduced for high schoolers in 2019.

Compared to 2017, the percentage of high schoolers statewide who scored proficient or higher this year dipped 1 percentage point in each English (91 to 90 percent), math (79 to 78 percent) and science and technology/engineering (74 to 73 percent).

Among third through eighth graders, the changes from last year vary by grade level, Education Secretary James Peyser said.

“This is still a new assessment, based on recently revised curriculum frameworks, and as such, it will take time for the results to stabilize into a reliable baseline against which real improvement can be measured,” he said.

In the second year of the new English language arts test, Bob Lee, the chief analyst for the MCAS program, said the “news is largely positive” for grades three through eight, with the overall scaled score up 1.5 points from 2017 to 2018.

On the math exams, the results were “up and down” across different grades, and overall down less than half a point, Lee said.

On the third-grade English MCAS, 9 percent of students scored “exceeding expectations,” 43 percent “meeting expectations,” 41 percent “partially meeting expectations,” and 7 percent “not meeting expectations.”