Thursday, October 24, 2002

Local students above state MEA averages

Published in the Current; co-written with Kate Irish Collins and Josh Williamson

Local students beat state averages on the Maine Educational Assessment tests, but still many are not meeting the standards set by the state.

The scores, released last week, have changed little from last year’s results. Since then, student scores in grades four, eight and 11 have held steady, landing predominantly in the “partially meets” standard in each of the
seven testing areas: reading, writing, math, science, social studies, health, and visual and performing arts.

Locally, Cape Elizabeth 11th-grade students led the way in every area of testing, with Scarborough and South Portland landing within just a few points, in most areas.

Students in all three communities scored at or above the state averages in every category except math, in which South Portland was one point off the state average.

One statewide trend shows that the gender gap in math and science has disappeared, with girls scoring just as well as boys.

However, boys have not caught up with girls in reading and writing, traditional strong areas for the girls.

“Clearly, we need more students to begin to show progress from ‘does not meet’ to partial mastery, and from ‘partially meets’ to meeting the standards,” said J. Duke Albanese, Maine’s commissioner of education.

The stronger than average showing in Cape Elizabeth did not surprise Superintendent Tom Forcella.

“As a whole, they were what we expected,” Forcella said.

The teaching staff in each Cape school will look at how students did in individual areas of each test, to pinpoint where students need to bone up.

Forcella said overall scores can disguise specific subtopics that either need work, or in which students already excel.

Forcella stressed that the long-term view of MEA scores is the important aspect of the test, allowing school officials to see how students do over the years. Further, he said, the MEAs are only part of a larger local assessment system now being worked on extensively in the district. “I think we’re using the results well,” Forcella said.

He expects to have a framework for a K-12 assessment system in place by the end of this year, as well as the specifics of a high school local assessment program, as required by state law.

In Scarborough, scores held steady within one or two points of the scores from last year.

Scarborough students are consistently meeting the standards in reading and writing and are also steadily climbing towards meeting the standards in social studies. However, in the last two years, students in Scarborough have only partially met the standards in math and science.

Fourth-graders did better in the five basic content areas last year than this year, while the eighth-graders did better this year. The 11th-graders also did
somewhat better last year.

Monique Culbertson, Scarborough’s director of curriculum and assessment, said that it is statistically impossible to match up reading scores with math scores because the standards are very different in each content area. What she likes to do instead is to conduct an individualized item analysis of each content area, looking at the questions that were asked and how the students responded.

“We are better able to look for trends and possible gaps in instruction by conducting such a detailed analysis,” Culbertson said. “We really are trying to stay away from the comparison that our students did better in reading than in math.”

Culbertson also said that it is sometimes difficult to know whether the fourth-graders, for instance, truly did do better on the test in previous years because of what they have been taught or whether fluctuations like that are based more on the individual class profile.

She said Scarborough schools are currently working on a comprehensive assessment model that should give the district a better understanding of the system’s strengths and weaknesses instead of relying solely on the MEA test scores.

Culbertson also said the MEA test scores are just a snapshot of where students are as a group and does not necessarily reflect individual achievement and learning.

Wendy Houlihan, assistant superintendent of South Portland schools, said that when the Learning Results standards were incorporated into the revised MEA test, they were intentionally set high.

The consistent scores of Maine students over the past three years could indicate that the test standards are not appropriate to the actual curriculum for students, Houlihan said. If this were the case, she said, it still wouldn’t pose a real problem.

“With these high standards, partially meeting the goal is pretty good,” Houlihan said.

Unlike states such as Massachusetts, which demand minimum scores in order for students to graduate, Maine does not place this emphasis on the MEA results.

“If this was something that could hurt a student’s future, then we might want to think about looking at the standards again,” Houlihan said. “But the MEA tests are just one of the tools we use to provide an assessment of student learning, and it doesn’t hurt us to keep that target high.”

At the same time, Houlihan thinks that Maine students could improve their scores and meet the higher demands of Learning Results.

“We always want the students to be improving from year to year,” Houlihan said.