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US News & World Report Grades Worcester Schools Poorly

Friday, May 18, 2012

 

Most Worcester public schools reported alarmingly low proficiency in Math and English, something that one local activist says could be fixed with greater parent involvement and more city funding.

US News and World Report recently published their ranking of national high schools, using publically available data including: the number of students taking Advanced Placement (AP) tests, how well they score on AP tests, and Math and English proficiency. The ranking also supplies figures for demographics of the school as well as the percentage of students receiving income based assistance and meal programs.

Though these metrics are straightforward and show some schools to have higher marks than others, state and local officials question the reliability and effectiveness of ranking and comparing high schools.

How Worcester High Schools Compared

Two schools – University Park Campus School and Worcester Technical High School – performed well enough to receive US News and World Report’s Bronze Medal; five of the other high schools in the district performed on average, below the state level.

Burncoat Senior High School performed below state average in English and Math proficiency; students were 60% and 67% proficient, respectively. Their college readiness score, derived by the number of students taking and passing AP test was on par with the state average.

The majority of students at Claremont Academy are not proficient in math, according to their report, which showed 55% of students not proficient.

Doherty Memorial High School’s English proficiency was average, but their math score was lower than the state average. 

North High School’s marks were below average across the board – with only 10% of their students passing AP exams, 52% proficient in math, and 58% proficient in English.

South High Community School performed on average with the state in college readiness, but lower in both other categories.

Ways to Improve the System

Worcester County Public Schools face many issues that are not seen everywhere in the state and students have challenges with poverty, language barriers, and funding.

“Poverty is the number one issue that we face. We have pockets of the schools where if you compare them to the rest of the state, they’d be right up there. We send kids to Harvard, but we have a lot of issues that face any urban city,” said Leonard Zalauskas, President of the Educational Association of Worcester. 

As Zalauskas points out, Worcester has successful schools, but the majority here are struggling with the same issues that every urban area sees.

“If you were to compare us to Newton or other cities we go against, we don’t have kids who have computers at their houses. They can’t go home and get online. Some children’s parents are educated, but some parents don’t have a good education. They can’t help them with homework,” Zalauskas said. He believes that increased city funding and more involved parents are the answers.

“We’ve been trying to get them to give more funding for years. I’m glad parents are waking up and getting involved. Most of the money comes from federal and state level, and the city needs to contribute,” he said. “You can’t compare a school with a homogenous population with an urban school. You can’t compare us with West Boylston. It’s like a different world. It’s stable. Those kids are living with their parents. We have how many homeless students? That’s something urban areas only face.”

 High Points

While South High’s proficiency scores were low, their college readiness score (based on AP testing) was high.

“South High is kind of a world of contrast in a lot of ways. It probably has some of the lowest scores in the city, but it also offers the most AP classes out of the four major schools in the district,” said Daniel Davis, a Clark graduate student who taught at South High for the better part of last year.

“They push AP classes. There are no prerequisites for taking any AP classes at South. There’s nothing barring a student from taking one if they are interested,” he said. “Due to a lot of issues, like English proficiency, a lot of kids aren’t aware of that opportunity.”

 While South High faces many issues that other district schools do, Davis says that South High is determined to work against these adversities.

“I don’t want to say that the school doesn’t do a good job putting those opportunities out there. They do what they can, but in a high school where 80% of kids are below the poverty line and just trying to get by, they’re not thinking about the future,” he said. “In some ways it’s a very difficult, deprived urban school, but on the other hand it does a lot more for its students. There are a bunch of really good, dedicated, caring teachers who really want the best for the kids and want to give them the best opportunities, given the limited resources they have. In that sense it’s very atypical for an urban school.”

The Risks of Comparing Schools

State and local officials like JC Considine, Director of Board and Media Relations at the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, say that ranking and comparing schools is a shaky practice that doesn’t always yield helpful results.

“We don’t believe in the practice of ranking. This is not about pitting one school against another. What we do is evaluate each school and each district performance on a system of accountability,” he said. “Based on how well schools close proficiency gaps, that will determine where they fall in our level system.”

“One of the advantages to our approach is we’re able to focus our support on those that are performing the lowest. Forty schools across the state are in level four – under performance,” Considine said.

Under the state’s method’s none of the city's high schools were reported to be at that level, but three other schools were. “There are schools in Worcester among the lowest performing in the state - Chandler Elementary, Union Hill School, and the Burncoat School are at level four.”

David Perda, the Chief Research and Accountability Officer for Worcester Schools, also sees the ranking as problematic. He cited US News and World Report’s magazine sales as a conflicting issue.

“I think the bigger question is how effective they are in producing useful measures for schools. These rankings are based on publically available records. I think they can be useful for producing a crude measure, but not the be all end all,” Perda said. “They can be used for any individual to dig deeper.”

“It’s similar to No Child Left Behind. We need to ask what’s the method behind the measure and the limitations,” he said. “I think it’s going to vary from school to school and classroom to classroom. You have to dig deeper than trying to make broad generalization of the schools.”

 

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