Achievement Gap Evident in Falmouth MCAS Scores
By: Elise R. Hugus
Standardized test scores reveal an “achievement gap” between Falmouth students from low-income families and their more well-to-do peers, indicating that the declining economy might be making an impact on education.
Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) scores released last month show that low-income and special education students did not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) at the elementary and middle school levels in English/language arts (ELA), and these same subgroups did not meet AYP standards across the district in mathematics.
The AYP targets are set under the federal No Child Left Behind act, designed to ensure that every student is proficient in math and English by 2014.
On an individual school level, Lawrence School, Morse Pond School, East Falmouth Elementary School, and Mullen-Hall School failed to make AYP status in the subgroups in ELA. Overall, Mullen-Hall School students did not make AYP status in ELA or math; while overall test scores at Lawrence did not meet AYP targets either.
The decrease in scores among low-income students could be due to the fact that the district had to cut its afterschool programs for students struggling with academics because of budget constraints, said Assistant Superintendent Elizabeth S. McGonagle at a meeting of the Falmouth School Committee last Tuesday.
“In the past three years, because we didn’t have access to the Medicare money for support programs, we’ve had to try to do that during the school day,” she said.
Noting that literacy and basic math skills are essential for a child’s future success, Ms. McGonagle said the district and individual teachers are doing what they can to help students early in their school careers.
“When you have a child that’s struggling, the harder it is for them to catch up with their peers as they get older,” she said.
According to Ms. McGonagle, about 20 to 25 percent of students in each school are considered “low-income,” a status that is based on the family’s qualification for the free and reduced lunch program.
Ernest G. Holcomb, the president of the Falmouth Educators Association and a physical education teacher at Mullen-Hall School, said that school is “stressed.”
With 510 students, about 125 are low-income, based on Ms. McGonagle’s estimates, he said. That number is about half the student population at a smaller school, like East Falmouth Elementary School.
“I’m sure the numbers are impacting Mullen-Hall,” Mr. Holcomb said. “It’s something you want to look at.”
Committee member Susan E. Augusta emphasized the point that none of the Falmouth schools are failing. “Word on the street is that Mullen-Hall failed. I’d hate to go back to the day when parents make distinctions between what school is good or not,” she said.
Ms. McGonagle agreed, noting that few of the students in the subgroups are failing, even if they did not meet AYP goals.
Answers in the numbers
Data “teams” at each school are sifting through the MCAS scores, hoping to identify individual students and an overall trend to understand why low-income and special education students are having problems with the MCAS, she said.
The decrease in scores is most pronounced in grades 7 and 8, where about half as many low-income students achieved “advanced” or “proficient” as their peers on both the ELA and math exams.
Ms. McGonagle noted that low-income student scores in several grades have gone up since 2007, even if they did not make AYP. That is partially based on the fact that fewer students indicate low-income status by the time they reach 10th grade, she said.
Committee member Samuel H. Patterson Jr. wondered if this incidence could be due to students dropping out. Ms. McGonagle replied that Falmouth High School has a low dropout rate, and also pointed out that more students fell into the low-income category this year than in previous years.
Committee member Emily D. Davern appealed to school administrators and her fellow committee members to keep the needs of low-income students in mind when making budget decisions in the upcoming fiscal year.
“It continues to break my heart, and I won’t rest until we don’t have achievement gaps in Falmouth,” Ms. Davern said. “As we look at budget priorities, we need to take that into account.”
Last year, students in each subgroup made AYP targets on the English MCAS at every school but at Lawrence. Despite the less than desirable performance among subgroups, the district met its AYP goals for two years in a row, meaning that Falmouth is no longer in the “improvement year” category.
While Ms. McGonagle pointed out that very few students did not pass the MCAS, the district’s overall performance on the composite performance index fell just short of AYP targets in ELA and math. On the science, technology, and engineering exam, Falmouth students bested AYP standards by several percentage points.
“Everyone knows this is an arbitrary, capricious model. But in the last 10 years, you can see progress in Massachusetts,” she said.
As a district, Falmouth tends to outperform the state average on nearly every level, Ms. McGonagle said. The one exception is attendance: on average, Falmouth students were absent more than 10 days, or two school weeks, last year.