SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 25, 2013

Column: Progress in our schools is being measured -- but how?

Janine Matho and Sarah Morrill
The Salem News

---- — Over the past 18 months, we have heard a lot about what actions the Salem public schools are taking to meet turnaround goals, but how will our progress be measured? Most of us immediately think of standardized test scores, like the MCAS, but MCAS is just one measure of how our schools are performing.

As with all districts, the state will measure progress in Salem against a variety of goals that fall into three interconnecting categories: student rates, student achievement and college readiness, and school culture. Improvement must be demonstrated in each area, and this can be achieved in a variety of ways. For example, attendance rates must go up so that kids are present and ready to learn; classroom instruction and student learning must improve to demonstrate progress as measured by the MCAS and other indicators; and our school culture must raise expectations of all students so that we may begin to implement more effective learning strategies.

Student rates

Student rates include attendance, truancy, dismissal, suspension, grade advancement and high school graduation. While there are minimum state requirements, Salem’s historic performance is the baseline from which growth is measured. For 2013, the Salem public schools fell outside the statewide averages in all areas with the exception of out-of-school suspensions, which were slightly below the state average. This means that Salem students drop out of school, are absent, suspended and held back a grade more often than other students in the state. And these statistics are amplified for students who are considered high needs: English Language Learners, students with special needs, and low-income students. To address these issues, Salem has set goals in its Accelerated Improvement Plan.

Student achievement

Student achievement goals pertain to MCAS. MCAS is a statewide test that measures what students should know and be able to do at certain critical times in their educational development as defined by national standards. MCAS sets the floor for student achievement, not the ceiling. The state does not prescribe how a school or district teaches its students. It simply uses MCAS as a standard measurement of a student’s knowledge of content at a particular time. Schools and the district must show continuous improvement, especially among high-needs students, to begin to close the gap between those students and their peers.

To improve student achievement, the Salem public schools must answer two critical questions:

1. Is the gap between our “high needs” students and their peers widening or narrowing? The goal is to cut the gaps in math, ELA and science noted in 2011 in half by 2017. The state uses a 100-point scale, called CPI (Composite Performance Index) to measure a district’s progress toward this goal. The target goal is 75. In 2013, Salem moved four points forward on this scale from 56 to 60.

2. Are our students demonstrating “growth” each year via the MCAS in math and ELA? To measure growth in math and ELA, student achievement is compared to statewide averages AND our own district goals. All students are expected to demonstrate growth that is at or near the state median, or show high growth each year between 2011-2017. Although last year’s 10th graders showed some improvement, Salem schools do not meet the statewide average in a single grade or subject, and they also did not meet the district’s own goals for growth.

College readiness and school culture

College readiness and school culture goals measure many indicators, including:

student learning and mastery of twenty-first century skills;

development of college readiness;

parent and family engagement;

development of a culture of academic success among students;

development of a culture of student support and success among school faculty and staff;

and the implementation of developmentally appropriate child assessments from pre-kindergarten through third grade.

Some specific data points that are used to measure success in this area include:

the number and percentage of students: completing advanced coursework (e.g., AP); completing high school early; and electing dual enrollment (college level classes);

teacher attendance rates;

distribution of teachers by performance level;

parent and family engagement;

developmentally appropriate assessments.

The Salem public school system is still defining metrics in these areas, and it is too soon to report on many of the above measures. But one highlight is the marked increase in students taking and succeeding in Advanced Placement (AP) classes at Salem High School. Since 2010 there has been a 310 percent increase in enrollment in AP classes and a 200 percent increase in qualifying scores for students at Salem High School. A full 24 percent of all students at SHS are currently enrolled in AP classes. AP is a national measure for college readiness, and proof that our students can handle standardized tests.

School turnaround generally takes one to three years. In September, 14 Massachusetts schools that had been identified as Level 4 three years ago demonstrated enough progress move out of Level 4 status. In one case, a school moved from Level 4 to Level 1. So, yes, turnaround is possible. But those 14 schools represent just 40 percent of the schools that were identified as Level 4 three years ago; another 60 percent are still struggling to improve.

Although the Salem public schools did not meet any of the student outcomes in year one of the accelerated improvement plan and is falling short of state expectations across all subjects and groups, the structure is now in place for growth. To meet the three-year goals, rapid achievement must be made this school year. And everyone working with our schools must embrace the goals we have set for ourselves in all categories: student rates, student achievement and college readiness and school culture; this includes embracing progress on the MCAS.

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Janine Matho is president and Sarah Morrill former president of the Salem Education Foundation. This column is one in a monthly series from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools.