Transient students face MCAS challenges
By Ashley Taylor
In 2010, almost one in five Somerville students entered or left the Somerville school district, according to data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Yet if they were students in Somerville during state’s standardized test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), Somerville schools would be held accountable for their performance.
Glenn Koocher, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, described the situation with an analogy: “It’s like blaming the hospital if someone walks in severely ill for not having them cured the next morning.”
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the current version of federal education legislation that has been evolving since the 1960’s, mandates that 100 percent of students achieve standardized test scores of proficient or better in English and Math by 2014 and sets requirements for annual progress toward that goal. In 2010, Somerville’s Accountability status under No Child Left Behind was “corrective action” needed. No one is saying that new students lowered Somerville’s MCAS scores. However, state data from 2008-09 school year show that statewide, students who changed schools throughout the year had lower MCAS scores, on average, than students who stayed put, suggesting that mobility may hamper academic performance.
Meeting the needs of mobile students and fairly evaluating school districts to take student mobility into account is the subject of a resolution that Mary Jo Rossetti, Ward 7 School Committee member and Vice President of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees presented to the National School Board Association in Washington this February. Congress is expected to consider the resolution as part of reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, also called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
With this resolution, an idea from Somerville could lead to nationwide change in education policy. Massachusetts is the first state to track student mobility, according to Somerville School Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi. Supporters of the resolution hope that it could bring federal dollars to schools with high mobility, including Somerville. Considering mobility when evaluating schools’ performance would be welcome relief to schools and teachers who, as Rossetti said, “are doing cartwheels and handstands in the classroom” in order to acclimate new students and meet federal education standards.
In February, Rossetti presented her resolution, “Impact of Student Mobility On Education” before the National Resolutions Committee of the National School Board Association in Washington. In April, Rossetti will speak to the association’s National Delegate Assembly make the case for sending the resolution to congress, according to a press release from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, which sponsored her trip.
The resolution comes nearly one year after President Obama outlined his administrations plans for an overhaul of No Child Left Behind. Rossetti and colleagues hope the overhaul will include her resolution.
The inspiration for her resolution was thesis research on student mobility by Mary Bourque, now the Deputy Superintendent of Chelsea Public Schools. Bourque’s research, Rossetti said, showed how mobility hinders education. Rossetti worked with Bourque, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and Somerville Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi to address the challenges mobility puts on schools.
Not only does moving from district to district affect the learning of mobile students, Rossetti said, but providing extra help to new students takes resources away from stable students. Those strained resources come out in test scores.
Rossetti said, “It is the assumption, when people look at scores, that these are students who have been in the same school from kindergarten. That is far from the truth.”
The state’s Department of Education Website has published data on student mobility since 2008. In 2010, 87.4 percent of Somerville’s students stayed within the school district. 18 percent of students either entered or left the district, and 11.2 percent of students entered the district throughout the year. Though no statistics about the 2010 data were available, Somerville was 34 from the bottom of the list ranking school districts by student stability, or the proportion of students staying in the district all year. In 2010, Somerville had less turnover than Arlington, Medford, and Boston.
An analysis by the Massachusetts Department of Secondary Education, released in August 2010, associated mobility with lower MCAS performance. The analysts found that, in data from school year 2008-09, the percentage of students scoring Proficient or Advanced on the MCAS tests for both English and Math was 24 percent lower for students who moved once or more throughout the year. Since income also influences MCAS performances, the study compared mobile and non-mobile, low-income students and found the same trend.
Mobility seems to influence MCAS scores, which are used as a measure of school performance under No Child Left Behind. Yet unlike teacher quality and curriculum, mobility is a factor that schools cannot control. The performance of a new student on the MCAS reflects disjointed education received at multiple schools, not just the education provided by their current school. Schools with high mobility are effectively penalized on the MCAS, Rossetti argues, and the resulting evaluations of school performance and annual progress toward the 2014 goals of 100 percent proficiency.
“Adequate yearly progress is not being viewed honestly, and it needs to be fixed,” Rossetti said.
Superintendent Pierantozzi was optimistic about the resolution and the ways in which it could help schools: “We’re hopeful that will result in some recognition for school districts that have a lot of mobility. Bottom line is that we hope we would see funding to help these students.”