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Further action sought on African-American MCAS scores, buffer zones

2nd report clarifies new accountability system

Troubling MCAS scores for African-American students and problematic buffer zones drew the attention of the School Committee on Oct. 24, as members asked for further action on both.

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 At the Oct. 10 meeting, committee members asked Roderick MacNeal Jr., the assistant superintendent, to explain the difference between the former MCAS legacy test and the present MCAS Next-Generation test. In response, he reviewed the new measures for accountability embedded in the revised MCAS exam.

MacNeal listed the goals of these new accountability measures as 1.) to provide information about school performance and student opportunities beyond test scores, 2.) to include accountability percentiles in progress toward goals, 3.) to focus on raising the performance of each school’s lowest-preforming students and 4.) to replace past accountability levels with categories at school district level data. See the complete report here >> 

Additional data calculated in the scores of the MCAS Next-Generation test include chronic absenteeism for one-through-eighth graders and high school students. Chronic absentee is defined as the percentage of students missing 10 percent or more days of school. Another new addition was the incorporation of the percentage of 11th and 12th grades completing one advance course, such as an advanced placement.

Members also wanted to know, when comparing the scores on the legacy test to the Next-Gen, whether there was an increase in the percentage of Arlington 10th graders failing the English language arts (ELA) and math tests. MacNeal responded that was no significant increase in the percentage of 10th graders failing (legacy) or not meeting expectations (Next-Gen).

Strategies for raising African-American scores

MacNeal responded to the committee request for differences among groups of Arlington’s students by breaking down the last year’s MCAS results to investigate any important group differences. These groups include gender, race, ethnicity, disabilities, English language learners and economically disadvantaged.

The numbers are too small for tests of significance but indicate differences in percentages of interest to the committee.

The most disturbing finding in the presentation was the discovery that Arlington’s African-American students in grades three through eight scored dramatically lower in both math and ELA compared to all other racial groups.

These results were presented by Paula O'Sullivan, districtwide data coach. She described the compiled math scores for these grades and how they were scaled to allow for a more robust analysis. In addition, she reported that the 10th-grade math scores revealed that African-American students in Arlington scored lower than the state average for all African-American students -- while slightly exceeding the state average for all African-American students on the ELA test.  

School Committee members expressed concern about these findings. Jennifer Susse commented: “I find it worrisome that African-Americans in math are not doing better than the state average; we need to think of what we need in terms of resources.”

Jeff Thielman wondered how faculty and staff have discussed these results and asked MacNeal, “How do you plan to think about this in your internal conversations?”

MacNeal replied that it was important to have a culturally sensitive staff and consider “how we can improve in that area.” He admitted that the question of how race impacts our instruction needs to be addressed. “We will be looking at our curriculum and conducting an equity audit on instructional materials,” he said.

He also recommended collecting qualitative data to explore the experiences of African-American students. By doing so, he said, “This would be giving them a voice.” Also “engaging with African-American parents” would be important, he recommended.

Chairman Len Kardon concluded the discussion by noting that this is new data and he does not know how much has been communicated to the administration and faculty. However, he continued “but for me, as chair of the School Committee, this is serious, and we need to focus on it as a team.

Gender differences in MCAS testing show female students scoring consistently higher than male students in ELA from the third to the last MCAS test, given in the 10th grade. However, for the math MCAS, girls score slightly higher than boys in the lower grades, but by the 10th grade boys’ score exceed those of girls. 

Committee members wondered whether more male teachers in the elementary grades would increase test scores for male students.

Categories of other subgroups -- such as English language learners, economically disadvantaged students and disabled students -- contain such small numbers that it was difficult to draw conclusions or identify trends. However, all of these remaining subgroups score above the state average for their respective groups.  

Percentage of first buffer-zone choices decline

Marilyn Salvas, data specialist for the School Department, reported on the 2019 school assignments for students who lived in one of the buffer zones. These areas, established in 2013, are designated neighborhoods between elementary schools where newly enrolled elementary school students without a sibling already enrolled in an elementary school are assigned to one of two of the elementary schools.

The goal, according to Superintendent Kathleen Bodie, was to balance classroom sizes. See the presentation here >> 

For the September 2019 school assignments, 119 parents were able to have their child or children placed in their first-choice school, while 30 parents had their child or children placed in their second choice.

Salvas noted a decline in being able to fulfill first-choice requests. Ninety percent of parents were able to have their child or children place in their first-choice elementary school in 2018. However, 79 percent of parents had their child or children placed in their first-place school in 2019. The highest number of students in any buffer zone placed in a second-choice school, six students, lived in the Stratton/Peirce zone.

“We did not do as well this year,” Bodie said.

Continuing her analysis, Salvas demonstrated on a table how overcrowded classrooms in elementary schools would be, particularly the Bishop and Brackett without the buffer-zone system. The Bishop, for example, if using the old district lines for assignments, would result in kindergartens with a class size of 27. Bodie explained that buffer zones allowed “for a more equitable distribution of child among the schools.”

Based on the 2019 data, Bodie concluded the school district “should be expanding buffer zones.” Right now, she said, “Buffer zones are being actively reviewed before submitted a report to the School Committee."

Member Jane Morgan introduced another issue with buffer-zone placements. She expressed concern about cohort sizes at each grade level as they move through an elementary school. She suggested using buffer zones for upper grades.

Bodie assured her, “We did, but mitigating circumstances, determined by consulting with principals, prevented more equitable cohort sizes.” She did not explain the circumstances.

Kardon brought up another concern: maintaining neighborhood cohesion. He proposed that if most students in a specific buffer-zone neighborhood were assigned to one of the two schools for kindergarten the first year, and then the next year, most students were assigned to the other school, the result would be children in the neighborhood attending different schools at every grade level.

Bodie concurred that this was a problem and offered another example: children living in apartment building forming a cohesive “natural grouping of students.” Among the issues for parent of these children who attend different schools, she identified “picking up after school would be more difficult to arrange.” She said these and other concerns will be taken up by the committee studying buffer zones “as we move forward.”

Alpine ski team plea

In other business, the committee heard Lynne Klosterman's request that the Arlington Alpine ski team be part of the regular Arlington high school athletic program and that it be put on the agenda for a future meeting.

Chief Financial Officer Michael Mason presented the monthly financial report -- included in documents here >> -- Bodie gave an update on the Arlington High School building project and member Bill Hayner reported about the annual Flags for Heroes Project, in front of AHS.

The committee also unanimously approved the 2019-2020 budget calendar as well as Laura Swan as its nominee to the Transportation Advisory Committee. 

Kardon said the evaluation forms for the superintendent’s annual review would be sent to all members the next day and he would like them returned within two weeks for preparation for the review to occur at the Nov. 14 meeting.

Oct. 18, 2019: As length of elementary school-lunch periods discussed, snacks touted

This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Jo Anne Preston was published Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019.

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