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Underperforming schools show MCAS improvement

But 82 percent in state fall short of federal targets

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By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / September 21, 2011

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Massachusetts’ 18-month effort to overhaul nearly three dozen of the worst-performing schools appears to be showing a glimmer of success, state education officials said yesterday as they released MCAS scores for schools and districts across the state.

At 16 of the 35 underperforming schools, scores increased by double digits on either the English or math sections of MCAS, while a few other schools made

smaller gains. The gains reflect the higher portion of students who ranked in the top two scoring categories, “proficient’’ and “advanced.’’

But the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System results were not all rosy: A dozen underperforming schools experienced slight declines in scores in one or both subjects.

“For me, the results suggest we are on the right path, but this is the first year of data, and I’m not ready to declare victory yet,’’ Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in an interview yesterday.

“We need to see multiple years of improvement. These are schools we had grave concerns about.’’

In Boston, Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said replacing teachers, extending the school day, and closely monitoring student achievement data appeared to have helped schools yield strong improvement.

The feat achieved by these schools after years of chronically low and often declining performance was a bright spot on a day when the state also announced the latest round of schools and districts statewide that failed to reach performance targets under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The act mandates that all students - regardless of a learning disability or lack of English fluency - be proficient on state exams by 2014.

Across Massachusetts, 1,404 schools, or 82 percent, missed testing targets this year, up from 67 percent the previous year. Under the federal law, no action is taken against schools that miss their targets for just one year, but in Massachusetts, like many other states nationwide, a growing number of schools are falling short year after year.

Consequently, state officials said yesterday that 64 percent of Massachusetts schools are now classified as in need of improvement, corrective action, or restructuring because the schools repeatedly failed to meet benchmarks, which typically call for a greater percentage of students showing proficiency on state exams each year. A year ago, 56 percent carried designations.

The number of districts in need of improvement, corrective action, or restructuring also grew this year to 39 percent, up from 32 percent last year.

Each designation requires schools to take some level of action. Schools in need of improvement that receive federal funding for low-income students must offer students tutoring and the chance to transfer to a better-performing school. Schools in corrective action or restructuring must undertake radical changes, such as replacing staff, administrators, or curriculums.

Schools must show two years of consecutive improvement to shed a designation. Just 18 schools this year achieved that success, including three in Boston: the James Otis, New Mission High School, and the Dante Alighieri Elementary .

Chester said he may ask federal officials to exempt Massachusetts from requiring that all students be proficient on state exams. The Obama administration announced last month that it is creating a waiver program, contending that the federal law exaggerates the number of potentially failing schools and thereby prevents school districts from targeting resources to the schools in greatest need.

States can qualify for a waiver if they sign onto Obama’s education overhaul agenda, which Massachusetts did last year when it secured $250 million from the federal Race to the Top program.

Massachusetts, in an effort to better identify the most distressed schools, enacted a law in early 2010 that led the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to designate the 35 schools that had among the lowest MCAS scores as “underperforming.’’

Murkland Elementary School in Lowell - where Chester, Governor Deval Patrick and other state officials announced the MCAS results yesterday - was among 10 underperforming schools that showed the greatest increase in improvement, according to the state. The portion of Murkland students scoring proficient and advanced in English increased by 13 percentage points and in math by 20 percentage points.

“The gains exhibited at Murkland Elementary demonstrate that when we focus efforts on providing schools with the tools they need, our students will rise to the challenge and progress will be made in closing achievement gaps,’’ Patrick said in a written statement.

Chester said his staff will be studying the results and the overhaul efforts over the next few months to gauge what strategies might be yielding the best results and may be worth replicating at other schools.

The state law gave superintendents extraordinary powers to alter teacher contracts so districts can replace teachers, extend school days, and make other changes to those schools.

Seven underperforming schools in Boston - including the Agassiz, which closed in June - had increases in the portion of students scoring proficient or advanced in English and math, while four schools had mixed results. Another school, the John P. Holland, experienced slight declines in both subjects.

“We really are excited about the rapid progress in English and math we see in the turnaround schools,’’ Johnson said. “We are hopeful our teacher contract negotiations will allow us to integrate what we are learning in our turnaround schools into other schools in Boston.’’

Ratcheting up the academic standards at Orchard Gardens, which had been plagued with chronically low performance for years, shocked many students, said its principal, Andrew Bott.

For instance, he said, an eighth-grade English teacher last year retaught students how to write a topic sentence - something they should have learned a few years earlier - but she also asked them to tackle Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’’ eliciting groans.

The teaching staff carrying out the academic changes was almost entirely new to the school.

While MCAS scores at Orchard Gardens are still low, they are much higher than a year ago. In English, the portion of students in grades 3-8 scoring proficient or advanced this past spring increased 10 percentage points to 30 percent. In math, the scores in those categories jumped 16 percentage points to 35 percent.

“We had a remarkable first year,’’ Bott said.

Erick Negron, 12, a seventh-grader from Roxbury, said the turnaround effort has made Orchard Gardens feel like a new school. Middle school students now stay at the school until 5:15 p.m.

“Everyone works hard and tries to stay focused,’’ Erick said. “No one goofs around.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.