In late September, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released its annual report, assessing school districts from across the commonwealth. This year, however, DESE used a new measurement tool that examines a host of criteria designed to provide a more equitable and useful sense of how well our area institutions of learning are faring.
Notably, the new system moves beyond a fixation on standardized test scores, featuring a new emphasis on absenteeism and the success of English language learners, as well as other factors that hopefully paint a more accurate picture. Still, the system could offer the public a more comprehensive sense of where each district is succeeding and where it is not.
Up until this year, DESE assessed schools using a system of levels from one to five, with level-one schools serving as models and level-five schools requiring state intervention. The new accountability structure also features five categories: Schools of Recognition, Meeting Targets, Partially Meeting Targets, In need of Focused/Targeted Support, and In Need of Broad Comprehensive Support. School districts can also be neatly divided into two broad groups: those that need assistance, and those that do not.
The update represents a significant improvement over previous models, placing less emphasis on the high-stakes MCAS exam results and instead diversifying the criteria to include other factors. For example, at the high school level, a school may also be judged on the availability of advanced classes, as well as its five-year graduation rate and dropout rate. This allows schools a better opportunity to showcase all of the elements that represent a truer picture of what they provide to students.
At the same time, the categories are, in some ways, so broad as to mitigate their effectiveness. Consider the fact that 75 percent of the state’s school districts, including the majority of those on Cape Cod, fall into the Partially Meeting Targets category. In fact, 11 Cape school districts earned this designation. Seventeen percent of the commonwealth’s school districts were designated as Meeting Targets, and only five Cape districts achieved that ranking. Only two districts – Sandwich and Brewster – were labeled as In Need of Focused/Targeted Support. Interestingly, students in both of these districts scored well on standardized tests, but not everyone was participating in that testing.
According to a DESE spokeswoman, the districts both lost out on a higher ranking because of low test participation. In Sandwich, English language learners were underrepresented; in Brewster, fewer students with disabilities took the test than could have. Sandwich officials maintain that the real issue involves a problem with reporting rather than actual low numbers, and in Brewster, school officials noted that some families opted out of having their children participate in the test.
And therein lies the curse of accountability. Both the general public and politicians want so desperately to quantify the success of schools that they are willing to put in place standards that may or may not provide a full picture of just what is actually happening in the classroom. Sandwich and Brewster provide a perfect case in point, where an apparently simple system fails to grasp the nuances of what goes into educating our children.
Furthermore, the fact that 11 of the region’s districts fit neatly into the category Partially Meeting Targets suggests a comparable problem. It is more than a little difficult to believe that any assessment system where three-quarters of the sampling fall into the same category can provide a sufficient degree of accuracy or usable feedback. The notion that the Nauset School District, the Dennis-Yarmouth School District, the Monomoy District, and the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School are all on par with one another seems more than passing strange.
At the same time, those supposedly looking for real answers must be prepared to sift through the information that is provided, avoiding a desire for quick answers to everything that goes into education. Despite what some might believe, educating children is a complex and multifaceted process that ideally offers an individualized and personalized approach for each student. Such systems defy simple analysis.
Obviously, there is more to the new DESE assessment system than meets the eye, and few have the patience for parsing all of the data. But the state would do well to develop a system that offers more specificity and explanations when it comes to where our schools are failing our students, and where they are meeting their needs.