Student test results take a downturn



ELLSWORTH — The results are in. And the results of the Maine Educational Assessment for the 2017-18 school year are, well, a bit disappointing.

“We didn’t see improvements to the level we wanted,” said Jim Boothby, superintendent for Regional School Unit 25 (RSU 25), which includes Bucksport Middle School and Bucksport High School.

Bucksport fared better than most. The percentage of students who met or exceeded expectations in English language arts/literacy, science and math was up across the board at Bucksport High School over the 2016-2017 school year. English language arts/literacy and math saw more than double-digit gains.

In Ellsworth, a higher percentage of Ellsworth High School students met expectations in math in 2017-2018 (32 percent, compared to 30 percent in 2016-2017) but fewer did so in science and English language arts/literacy.

Sumner Memorial High School students fared slightly better in science in 2017-2018 (55 percent met expectations, compared to 53 percent in 2016-2017). But percentages fell in math (25 percent of students met expectations in 2017-2018) and English language arts/literacy (49 percent of students met expectations).

The data, released last week by the Maine Department of Education, shows that students in Hancock County tend to do better in elementary and middle school than at the high school level.

The percentage of Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School students who met expectations in science was, at 71 percent, over 10 points higher than the county and statewide average.

But those gains appear to falter in high school, where only 43 percent of students met expectations in science, below county and statewide averages. Those gaps were similar at Bucksport Middle School and Bucksport High School, although students at Deer-Isle Stonington High School outperformed their elementary school counterparts in math and English language arts/literacy.

Several local administrators said one of the challenges in implementing curriculum changes based on MEA results is the time lag, since results are generally released after the beginning of the next school year.

Christian Elkington, superintendent for School Union 76 (which includes Deer Isle-Stonington schools, Sedgwick and the Brooklin School), said in an email that after MEA results in 2016-2017, the schools implemented “new academic expectations for students along with new instructional expectations of staff” as well as improvements in social and behavioral support.

“My expectation is that over the next couple of years we will start to see upward growth across the board within each schools test scores” with the new expectations, Elkington said.

Elkington said the 2017-2018 results “are a mixed bag, with scores in two of our three districts, CSD [Community School District] 13 and Sedgwick well below where our students need them to be and what we feel we should be expecting. Our results in Brooklin are better, but still below what we should be expecting. It will take time for each of our focus areas to become systemic instructionally and repeated so they will build on each other at each grade level.”

School officials caution against reading too much into the numbers.

“They’re one piece of data,” Boothby said. “They’re informative but not terribly helpful.”

He added that the time delay in receiving the results also presents challenges for those trying to develop curriculums.

“It’s a two-year lag before you can really take advantage of the data,” Boothby said.

There are also a myriad of other factors to take into account, said Julie Meltzer, director of curriculum, assessment and instruction for the Mount Desert Island Regional School System.

“We have to understand that there are all kinds of factors that go into providing really high-quality educational experiences for students, and you can’t take out into the impact of socioeconomic status and the level of community support into the equation.”

Socioeconomic status is closely tied to school performance.

“Research continues to link lower socioeconomic status to lower academic achievement and slower rates of academic progress as compared with higher socioeconomic communities,” write researchers at the American Psychological Association.

A 2013 study found that children from poorer families have been shown to go into high school with literacy skills that are, on average, five years behind high-income students. Parents working long hours may have less time to volunteer for school activities and events or monitor children’s progress in the classroom.

“You can only compare yourself to yourself,” Meltzer said. “I really think this atmosphere of comparing schools across towns is poisonous. I don’t think it helps towns to understand this at all.”

Meltzer said she has worked in school districts across the nation and the state. Schools on Mount Desert Island, said Meltzer, “are fortunate in the fact that we have a lot of community support and resources to support our students.”

“If you have a lot of teacher turnover then those teachers are not as familiar with the curriculum. If you have a lot of students coming from families with lots of other needs and issues,” said Meltzer, or if students are frequently moving. “You can’t compare that to schools where there’s a stable population and kids aren’t coming to school hungry.”

Although districts must take the results into account for federal and state reasons, Meltzer said, “I find the state tests to be one of the least helpful measures.”

“It’s a one point in time test that we have no guarantee whether it’s comparable,” she said. “It’s not particularly curriculum aligned and doesn’t show us growth very effectively.”

There are better ways to measure progress, Meltzer said.

“How much are our kids reading? Is there critical thinking going on? Is there high-quality discussion? Can kids articulate what they’re working on?” Are schools offering equal opportunities for experiences, good food in the cafeteria and working in partnership with parents?”

Meltzer urged parents and teachers to resist comparing schools across districts.

“Each school has to figure out with what they have how to best support their kids,” Meltzer said. “They’re all working really, really hard.”

Jennifer Osborn contributed to this report.

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Southwest Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]