State plans to track students' progress, not just scores

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / March 24, 2009
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MALDEN—Each fall when the state releases MCAS scores, principals often blame a dip in scores on the students, tactfully arguing that the class in question was perhaps not as superb a group of mathematicians or voracious readers as their predecessors.

State education leaders plan to inject a reality check this fall into the "good class vs bad class" debate by tracking the performance of individual students as they advance from one grade to the next. The new measurement could shed light on who is falling short -- teacher or pupil -- and lead to fundamental changes in the way students are taught.

Mitchell D. Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said yesterday that the new analysis will make it harder for local school leaders to be dismissive of poor test scores.

"It takes away a lot of the excuse-making," Chester said at yesterday's meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education where the new system was unveiled.

Under the current system, the state judges a school's success by comparing its MCAS scores at each particular grade level to the scores posted by that grade the year before. The English and math MCAS tests are given in grades 3 through 8 and in grade 10.

Many teachers and adminstrators have chastized the approach as an apples-and-oranges comparison because the variation could simply reflect a class of particularly gifted or challenged students. The problem can be especially acute at small schools, where there are only a few dozen students at each grade level and the performance of a handful of students can create dramatic shifts.

Using the new tool, the state will augment that analysis by examining the performance of individual students or classes of students over the period of several years, starting in the third-grade.

The examination of current and past scores will allow them to predict students' likelihood for improvement in the future and assess whether they are on track to meet expectations. If a number of a students at a particular school are exceeding the statistical predictions, that could indicate that the administrators and teachers there have identified promising teaching methods. If a number of students are falling short of predictions, that would indicate there could be a problem.

The system could also lead to earlier interventions for students who appear to be lagging behind, despite an overall pattern of success at a school, and enable the state to more closely monitor the academic growth of groups of classmates of similar socio-economic backgrounds.

"It makes far more sense to track a population of kids rather than just a grade level," said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, which has been pushing the state to adopt a student tracking system. "It's more of an apples-to-apples comparison."

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers union and a longtime critic of the MCAS, declined yesterday to comment on the new system, saying through a spokeswoman that the group needed to gather more information.

The state will begin reporting the tracking scores this fall. The state will be able to gather scores from as far back as three years ago when the state began testing students across the board in grades 3 - 8 in English and math. Previously, the state only tested students in those subjects at certain grade levels.

By taking a long-term view of student performance, state leaders hope to identify schools making huge leaps in student performance, even if those schools might be performing slightly below state averages. Those schools may have strategies that can be shared with other teacher and administrators statewide, where improvement is not as strong.

The reports also will indicate whether each student is on track to reach the federal government's goal of proficiency -- a basic understanding of skills and concepts in English and math -- by predicting the student's likely range of scores in future years. The state will do that by comparing that student's track record on the MCAS to older students who had similar records at that grade level.

"I'm just blown away by the power and the potential of this kind of an analysis," said Thomas Fortmann, a state education board member from Lexington, during yesterday's presentation. "This is a poster child for strategic investment."

Massachusetts is modeling its system after one in Colorado, which was developed by the National Center for Assessment, a consulting firm in Dover, N.H., that works with states on data analysis. Colorado just dispatched its first set of scores to schools this school year.

"Instead of being a system that demonizes schools, it tries to shine a light on schools that have had successes," said Damian Betebenner, a senior associate of the Dover consulting firm, in an interview yesterday.

Nevertheless, he emphasized the system still holds administrators and teachers accountable to results, forcing them to examine whether a lack of progress was a result of their own shortcomings.

Massachusetts, like Colorado, plan on seeking approval from the federal government to use the new system as another way to assess schools under the No Child Left Behind Act, which places sanctions on schools that fail to make progress over time.

The state also intends to develop an individual student report card that can be sent to parents.

While helping underperforming schools was the thrust of yesterday's conversation, state officials say the system holds a lot of promise in honing in on a concern of parents at some high-performing schools: Are students excelling because of great programs or merely their own socio-economic background? The data will reveal which schools might be resting on its laurels by revealing scores that, although high, had improved only marginally compared to other schools.

"We want to make an accountability system that is as fair as possible," said Jeffrey Nellhaus, a deputy education commissioner, after making the presentation to the board. "The more information we have on improvement and growth, the better."

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