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Published in Print: December 11, 2002, as Mass. Retools Ratings System In Bid to Jibe With ESEA

Mass. Retools Ratings System In Bid to Jibe With ESEA

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With its recent unveiling of new performance ratings of schools and districts, Massachusetts marked the launch of an effort to merge its home-grown accountability system with the requirements of the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001.

But the new ratings are causing some confusion, in part because schools that were praised by the state education department two years ago were placed on its watch list this year for failing to meet their targets for "adequate yearly progress."

All states are scrambling to make adjustments similar to those in Massachusetts, as they craft mechanisms to chart the annual progress of their schools toward the federal goal of having all students achieve proficiency in English/language arts and mathematics by 2014.

In Massachusetts' case, that has meant putting to new use the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests, which the state designed, in part, to be a hurdle that 10th graders must pass to graduate, beginning with the class of 2003.

"We had a classification system that relied on absolute performance, and now it has the overlay of a federal system that includes a performance factor as well as its expectation for yearly improvement," said Paul Reville, the director of the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform, located at Harvard University's graduate school of education. The two systems do not dovetail easily, he said.

Under the Bay State's new rating system, schools and districts receive separate ratings for absolute performance and for progress. At the unveiling of the so- called "Cycle II" school and district ratings on Nov. 25, state officials lauded the gains made on the MCAS in English/language arts—and slight gains in mathematics—over the past two years.

"What we are seeing now is the efforts of our teachers, administrators, parents, and students from all areas paying off," Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll said.

The ratings are based on students' MCAS scores for grades 4, 7, 8, and 10 in English/language arts and math for 2001 and 2002. Of the 1,630 schools that received performance ratings—which ranged from "critically low" to "very high"—59 percent rated "high" or "very high" in English, and 25 percent rated "high" or "very high" in math.

Three-quarters of the schools also received improvement ratings, which compare their MCAS results in 2001 and 2002 with their performance in 1999 and 2000. The other schools were considered too new or small to produce improvement ratings.

Overall, of the 1,326 schools that received improvement ratings in English, 83 percent were at or above their targets for improvement; of the 1,265 schools that were rated in math, 55 percent were at or above their targets.

Districts also are subject to the state ratings. Of the 320 rated districts, 94 percent were at or above their targets in English, and 76 percent were at or above their targets in math.

Ratings Confusion

Under the new ratings, 194 schools are on the state's watch list, of which 95 are on the list for the second time. The original watch list, published in 2000, had 259 schools.

Up to a dozen more schools could yet be added to the new list from a batch of 100 schools whose test data are still under review, officials said.

Being on the watch, or "schools in need of improvement," list earns a school extra scrutiny and extra resources from the state, and—if the school stays on the list for two cycles of two years each—the possibility of a state takeover.

But the watch list has "anomalies," said Ellen Guiney, the executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence, an education foundation that seeks to help the Boston public schools improve literacy instruction.

"There are schools that improved a great deal and are still on that list," she said. "And there are schools that failed to make improvements that are not on the list."

Two years ago, Ms. Guiney noted, Boston's Otis Elementary School was lauded by the state education department because 84 percent of its students had passed the MCAS, although 68 percent of its test- takers were English-language learners.

"It's now on the [watch] list," she said. The reason, she explained, is not that the school's MCAS scores didn't improve—they did—but that it missed its target for annual yearly progress, or AYP, to be on track to meet the federal deadline in 2014.

Vol. 22, Issue 15, Page 5

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