September 21, 2009
Thomas Edison is credited with the following quote, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” If you saw the state’s ranking of Gateway as the 25th worst district in the state based solely upon MCAS data, you might agree with the state’s proposed solution: increase Charter School enrollment. We are all aware of the shortcomings of using a single, standardized test to determine something as incalculable as a student’s success at preparing for life, yet the state is willing to label schools without looking at any other data. In reality, the idea that Charter Schools are the panacea for all that ails public schools has not been borne out in qualified research studies, and the idea that taking more funds from an already overburdened and under funded public education system doesn’t seem like the best solution, even if Massachusetts is chasing one-time, race to the top, Federal funds.
Our understanding and mistrust of MCAS does not, however, absolve us from the truth: that on this one test of student success, Gateway’s results are not acceptable. As John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote, “Let us take things as we find them: let us not attempt to distort them into what they are not. We cannot make facts. All our wishing cannot change them. We must use them.” MCAS is a standard that we must use and meet, as far as the state and federal governments are concerned. The question remains—where are we and where do we go from here?
This ranking should not come as a surprise to many people, given our history on the MCAS tests. We were among the worst in the state when MCAS first began, and many will remember Gateway High School being recognized statewide early on for significant gains in MCAS scores. I’m pleased to report that the High School still does very well on MCAS tests and has already met the target scores for the NEXT cycle of student performance improvement. Knowing this leads one to conclude that our district rating is based on middle and elementary student scores. At one time, our scores at these levels were acceptable. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, each school’s scores must improve every two years until they meet the national goal of 100% of students receiving Advanced or Proficient scores in 2014. As the target scores are raised to meet that mark, our scores have remained stagnant. To address this, we’ve enacted several reforms over the past few years. As these are fully implemented, we expect to see improved individual student achievement that should yield improved MCAS scores (barring more multi-million dollar cuts in state aid to education).
Let me first explain the idea of a “guaranteed curriculum”, where the curriculum (the map of student learning) is directly related to what is being assessed (the Massachusetts learning standards), and classroom instruction and assessment is directly related to the established curriculum. To put it another way, think of driving from Boston to LA: you’ve got a map, a timetable to meet, checkpoints along the way to ensure you’ll arrive on time, sufficient resources (money, means of transportation) and the freedom to sightsee and take detours along the way, as long as you will still arrive on time. MCAS measures the end result of this journey—you’ve made it to LA in the allotted time using the specified resources. MCAS doesn’t measure the journey, the sightseeing, the life experiences, the detours or any other measurable results of the trip. Given this, it is the district’s responsibility to establish checkpoints along the way (the teachers’ classroom assessments and the district’s interim assessments), provide assistance to those students who are falling behind (the interventions that help those students who need additional help to master a subject) and provide additional resources to those individuals or groups who need them to succeed.
As a district, we’ve set up some interim (formative) assessments to check student progress and provide appropriate help (DIBELS, Gates-MacGinitie, DRA, and math assessments) and are now putting a system into place that allows classroom teachers to see this data on student performance and student needs (RtI-Response to Intervention). We’ve also established the basis for a unified district curriculum and are now in the process of refining and implementing this curriculum so that it is actively used in planning classroom lessons. The district has supported new literacy and math programs in grades K – 6; begun to establish common district-wide expectations for writing; reviewed and implemented changes to grades 5 – 12 math instruction; purchased new textbooks from K – 12; and begun the process of ensuring that classroom, district and state assessments are effectively measuring student progress. Administrative staffing has also changed, with a curriculum director to establish, update and tie together curriculum, instruction and assessment; a single lead principal for the elementary schools to ensure consistency across five schools; and a middle school and junior high school to maintain student support, change student expectations, and create administrative equity. We’ve also instituted a district data team to help staff use data effectively in the classroom, established a district professional development committee, and are reviewing ways to ensure that all appropriate supports are identified and used effectively throughout the district. Later this year, we will offer the ability of parents and Grade 5 – 12 students to regularly track their progress on-line, rather than only seeing this progress 8 times a year
Essentially, we’ve begun the process of moving from a paper map to a GPS system for our trip across the country. These are significant changes that require input from many people, a rethinking of how education is delivered, and appropriate training at all staff levels. As with any change, it takes time to adjust and effectively use these new tools. As you’ll be able to see when the 2008-2009 MCAS scores are released in the near future, these changes—although not yet fully implemented—already appear to have had a significant impact on student MCAS scores. The bottom line is that Gateway has maintained it’s core belief in the education of the whole child, while laying the groundwork for student improvement in mathematics, English language arts and science during a time of rapidly diminishing finances. Far from being demoralized from our state ranking, I feel we’re poised for significant improvement and look forward to rapidly bettering our MCAS scores