School administrators frankly admit there's room for improvement in students' MCAS scores, particularly on math and science, but to a certain extent that's because elementary students are still adjusting to a new math curriculum, they say.
McCarthy School Principal Ray Smoyer, who reviewed elementary students' results with the School Committee recently, said the district went into Math in Focus expecting scores would dip as students adjusted to the new and unfamiliar scope and sequence aspects of the curriculum.
To their credit, he said, some grades actually performed slightly better than expected.
Superintendent Joe Mastrocola and a team of administrators walked through both the high and low points of this past spring's MCAS results with the committee two weeks ago and will discuss a budget proposal from Mastrocola Tuesday night aimed at focusing on the problem areas.
Mastrocola noted MCAS data can be analyzed in various ways and offered a word of caution to parents, teachers and local officials.
"We should not use MCAS data to rank our schools," he said -- neither should it be a "lightning rod," but rather some instructional information on where attention is needed.
"The data shows a continued need to focus on writing and math," he said -- the same analysis he made four years ago as the assistant superintendent.
'Retrenching' the budget
Mastrocola called his spending proposal a "retrenchment" of this year's budget.
"We have a lot of stuff to be proud of," he said, but argued some further investments are needed in order to tangibly improve on math. "It's not going to be the end of the world if we don't do this, but if we really want to make a difference we need to make some of these investments."
Mastrocola identified $179,000 in the current budget that he'd like to spend on the following:
- Part-time on-site math trainer (for staff professional development and targeted at elementary and middle school)
- Math manipulatives (i.e. tangrams, pattern blocks, fraction strips, etc.)
- Extended day remediation (power hours, math clubs, etc. for students)
- Vertical teams (collaborative teaching between grades 5/6 and 8/9)
- More substitute teachers
Extending the school day would likely entail negotiations with the teachers' unions, but since those talks are already underway on a new contract, School Committee member Jarrod Hochman suggested that topic be part of the discussion as well.
Mastrocola said the district's circuit breaker reimbursement came in a little higher than anticipated, so $102,000 could be gleaned from there, another $60,000 from fuel expenses and $27,000 from school choice tuitions into the district (there are now 24 students choicing in).
Mayor Ted Bettencourt asked to put off discussion of the budget proposal until Tuesday's meeting and perhaps take a vote at that time.
Reorganizing the budget aside, some other plans for improvement on math are in professional development, curriculum and instruction (daily math blocks for K-5, a math lab for middle school, etc) and intervention (after-school and extended day programs).
As for ELA, principals regularly identified non-fiction reading comprehension and writing -- composition and open responses -- as areas of concern across all grade levels tested.
That action plan looks at professional development, curriculum and instruction (adding a daily writing block for K-5, a writing seminar in middle school, etc), regular assessments of students' writing based on new district rubrics and intervention (after-school and/or extended day programs).
It just takes one school to rank the district
A look at individual school performance shows the Peabody Public Schools now rated at Level 3 -- the lowest assessment is Level 5 -- because of one elementary school, despite the fact that Peabody Veterans Memorial High School has attained Level 1 status on the other end of the spectrum and all other schools are at Level 2.
"I'm pretty proud of that...proud of the teachers, proud of the students," said PVMHS Principal Ed Sapienza.
He attributes the success in part to the greater focus now on English, math and science through the Advanced Placement program with the Math and Science Initiative. The AP program has seen steadily improving results since its inception in 2009 and, Sapienza said, both teachers and students are simply better prepared in those core subject areas.
"I think this has buoyed the whole school," he said. The top students are achieving good scores and that spurs other students on to do better, according to Sapienza.
The West School, on the other hand, has struggled in all areas of the MCAS. Level 3 status means the school scored in the lowest 20 percent of K-5 schools statewide and thus one or more subgroups within the school scored in the lowest 20 percent on a statewide comparison.
"We have a plan we think that will turn things around," said Dr. Tom Cornacchio. "We have a large amount of high needs students at our school."
Cornacchio outlined three basic challenges the school is looking to turn around:
- More than 30 percent of the students that participated in the 2012 MCAS from the West are in the high needs category compared to about 18 percent from the state and 16 percent on average in the rest of the district. He said that although the group is showing marked progress over last year, it still represents a challenge in teaching and learning.
- Last year's general education fourth grade students scored significantly below the state average in both ELA (48 percent NI) and math (58 percent NI) as most students placed in the Needs Improvement category. Cornacchio said that is "unacceptable" and offers no excuses for those scores.
- Non-fiction reading comprehension is a weak point for many students, particularly in inferential meaning and drawing conclusions from a passage.
Cornacchio then ran through a lengthy list of bullet points on what's being done to improve student achievement.
That list includes collaborating with the state District and School Assistant Center on an action plan, hiring a 19-hour reading tutor using Title I money, more teacher training on the MCAS, purchasing MCAS preparation materials along with new learning materials for therapeutic classrooms, using non-fiction units created within district for K-5 and math tutoring, among several other measures.
Cornacchio said the plan is akin to using a team playbook to review and ensure everyone's on the same page with the guidelines.
"We can execute our offense, hopefully, with more success next year," he said.