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Worcester Schools Achievement Scores Fall Behind Rest of MA

Monday, January 13, 2014


Areas for improvement remain throughout Massachusetts' public educational system despite high marks in state-by-state national comparisons.

In Education Week's newly released Quality Counts 2014 survey of K-12 achievement, the nation as a whole earns a “C-” while Massachusetts tops the nation with an “A-” for giving its students the best “chance for success.”

Covering the state's second largest metropolitan area, the Worcester school district faces the same difficulties as other urban environments, in Boston and nationwide, including high rates of poverty and gaps in achievement.

“Yes, Massachusetts overall has done an excellent job in education,” said Jennifer Davis Carey, founding executive director of the Worcester Education Collaborative, an independent organization that advocates for students in the Worcester Public Schools. “But if you look at pockets in specific demographics ... we still have achievement gaps.”

While the state and local school district have made strides, “we still have a ways to go,” Carey said.

National report subtitle: 'District Disruption and Revival'

“There can be little doubt that the environment in which public schools operate is more complex today than ever before,” said Christopher Swanson, vice president of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit organization that publishes Education Week, in a written release. “With more pressure to perform and expanded options available to students and their families, business as usual is no longer good enough for local school leaders who must fundamentally rethink how their school systems operate.”

“But whether we will look back on this proliferation of new approaches as a great age of experimentation or a period of confusion remains very much to be seen,” Swanson concluded.

While national reforms revolving around Common Core State Standards and federal incentives like Race To The Top continue in fits and spurts — last November, Massachusetts state officials voted to delay implementation of the Common Core — the Bay State has continuously led the nation in key indicators like standardized assessments.

In Education Week's report, the state tops the “chance for success” indicator, but falters in other specific measures, including teacher accountability and incentives, K-12 achievement equity, early childhood education, and college readiness.

Comparison to New England

“I think the 'chance for success' indicator that Massachusetts leads the nation on is quite possibly most telling,” said school committee member Tracy Novick. “It relies not just on the same tired test score data too often cited in these reports, but it looks much more broadly at what it takes to raise a child through to a successful adulthood.”

“Education is only a part of that,” Novick continued, citing health care, nutrition, and level of adult education as additional important surrounding supports.

Across New England, New Hampshire was ranked third in Education Week's chance for success measure with a “B+”.

Connecticut was fourth with the same letter grade, while Vermont came in seventh with a “B”.

Rhode Island was 21st with a “B-” and Maine was 25th with a “C+”.

In Worcester, meanwhile

“Worcester mirrors the state in certain key respects, in that we do well compared to similar, other urban environments,” said Brian O'Connell, a long-time school committee member. “However, like those cities, I don't believe we're where we should be in terms of student performance.”

Speaking in the middle of the 2013-14 school year, “it might be fair to say we're at the midpoint of (reforming) our school system as well,” O'Connell said.

In the Worcester Regional Research Bureau's latest “Worcester by the Numbers” report this month focusing on education, that research group tallies two elementary schools identified through Massachusetts' Framework for District Accountability and Assistance as in need of a “turnaround”: Chandler Elementary and Burncoat Street. But the bureau notes one school, Union Hill, moved up and out of that status, while Chandler Elementary is close to doing the same.

Meanwhile, seven of Worcester's elementary schools and Worcester Technical High rate as “level 1” under the state framework for showing cumulative progress and performance for all students, including those with high needs.

Districtwide, in standardized testing under the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), Worcester scores lower in math and English across the board compared to the state average.

In a survey of mobility and graduation rates by the research bureau, the local district compared favorably to Boston, Chelsea, and Springfield schools in four-year graduation rates, dropout rates, and “churn,” meaning the number of students moving between schools within the district. But Worcester performed slightly poorer on those indicators compared to Brockton, Lowell, and Lynn.

Goal is a culture of learning

Carey acknowledged specific benchmarks that haven't been met, including English proficiency in the 3rd grade, but she pointed to a grade-level reading initiative that is working to address the issue, in addition to other programs to stem the summer learning loss and spur early learning. “Another thing we've made tremendous strides on is getting books into the hands of children,” she said.

O'Connell agreed, saying literacy and reading programs had helped to “build a real culture of learning” that surrounded students.

“We try to send a clear message to students that education is a priority.”

Other areas being worked on noted by O'Connell include science and math curriculum, increasing the number of students in Advanced Placement classes, and ensuring access to the arts, music, foreign languages, and physical education. “That's all vital.”

Increasing rigor for the highest performers

Among his chief concerns, O'Connell pointed to the issue of ensuring academic robustness for the most gifted students across the entire district. “We're not challenging our most academically performing students,” he said.

With a school subcommittee working toward identifying the problem and potential solutions, O'Connell pointed to the Goddard Scholars Academy within Sullivan Middle School as an “ideal model for other schools in coming years.”

With that accelerated magnet school as a template, “we have the key ingredients in place.”

Asked about “achievement gaps,” Novick rephrased the expression as often “opportunity gaps.”

Novick said she hoped inequity in funding evidenced by Education Week's report would “add to the alarm we've been sounding in Boston regarding school funding.”


Related Slideshow: New England’s School Policy and Performance Grades

According to a report released by Education Week, these are the state report cards for the New England states in 2014:

Prev Next

6. Maine

Chance for success: C+

National Rank: 25

K-12 achievement: C

National Rank: 13

School finance analysis: B

National Rank: 10

Prev Next

5. Rhode Island

Chance for success: B-

National Rank: 21

K-12 achievement: D+

National Rank: 27

School finance analysis: B

National Rank: 5

Prev Next

4. Vermont

Chance for success: B

National Rank: 7

K-12 achievement: C+

National Rank: 5

School finance analysis: B

National Rank: 6

Prev Next

3. Connecticut

Chance for success: B+

National Rank: 4

K-12 achievement: C-

National Rank: 14

School finance analysis: B+

National Rank: 4

Prev Next

2. New Hampshire

Chance for success: B+

National Rank: 3

K-12 achievement: C+

National Rank: 4

School finance analysis: B-

National Rank: 13

Prev Next

1. Massachusetts

Chance for success: A-

National Rank: 1

K-12 achievement: B

National Rank: 1

School finance analysis: B

National Rank: 11


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