Bridging the Gap: State designs new accountability system to raise lowest performers

December 10, 2018


Algonquin has a long history of taking pride in being among the best in terms of academics, sports and extracurricular opportunities.

Algonquin also has a history of excelling as a school compared to state standards.

In 2016, Algonquin held the status of a level one school according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which was the highest of five possible levels. This level means that Algonquin was classified as meeting its state goals.

According to the DESE 2017 Accountability Report, Algonquin slipped to a level two school, classified as “not meeting narrowing gap goals.” However, in 2017, the graduation rate exceeded targets at 98.1 percent. Four hundred and nine students took 808 Advanced Placement tests in 2018, with 91.2 percent earning a score of three or higher.

This year, the DESE eliminated the leveling system completely, replacing it with a new accountability system designed to bridge the gap between all students and the lowest performing students.

While the DESE no longer levels schools, according to their 2018 report, Algonquin has a 46 percent of “progress towards improvement targets,” and the school is in the 83 percentile compared to other Massachusetts schools.  The numbers have demanded a closer look into how progress is determined.

What Goes Into a Rating

According to the DESE Summary of Massachusetts’ Accountability System, an accountability system is designed to evaluate school and district performance. The new system in particular aims to measure how a school is doing and the support a school may need.

The Accountability Report takes into account five indicators: “achievement,” “growth,” “high school completion,” “progress towards attaining English language proficiency” and “additional indicators,” which is comprised of chronic absenteeism and advanced coursework completion. The state of Massachusetts sets annual targets for each school based on past performance, and ratings are assigned based on the progress relative to those targets.

“[The state] gives [the school] targets every year that they want you to reach so that your students are moving towards being proficient in certain areas,” Assistant Principal Tim McDonald said.

The state assigned Algonquin targets of 100, 98.6 and 99.1 for English language arts, mathematics and science MCAS respectively, which make up the achievement category. These targets are calculated as a Composite Performance Index (CPI). A CPI of 100 indicates that all of the students are proficient or higher.

For growth, which is calculated as a Student Growth Percentile (SGP) in terms of students’ performance compared to past MCAS tests, Algonquin’s targets were SGP’s of 50.0 for both English language arts and mathematics.  

The targets for graduation rate, extended engagement rate and annual dropout rate, which comprise the high school completion category were set at 96.9 percent, 100 percent and 1.0 percent.  

The additional indicators category accounts for chronic absenteeism and advanced coursework completion, with targets of 9.8 percent and 70.6 percent.

In each category, a school can earn a rating of zero through four, wherein a zero correlates to a decline from the prior year and a four means the school has exceeded a target. These rating points compared with the maximum possible amount of points dictates the percentage of progress towards improvement targets.

Schools are placed into two classifications according to the DESE: requiring assistance and intervention and not requiring assistance or intervention. Algonquin falls into the latter category due to its categorization of “partially meeting needs.” To be considered “meeting needs,” a school must have above 75 percent progress towards meeting improvement targets. Algonquin’s 46 percent progress towards improvement targets, placing it in the 83 percentile compared with other Massachusetts schools.

According to math department head Elizabeth Dore, the new system puts more focus on illuminating needs of students who may need more help.

“The [accountability system] is really paying attention to how we do with not just our upper-level students,” Dore said. “How are we doing with our students with disabilities, with our students who are English language learners, with our high needs students, students living in poverty? That’s what the state is really looking at: how are we doing with our students who need the most help?”

“It’s about growth and it’s about closing gaps, but it’s not about bringing the top achievers down in order to close a gap,” McDonald said. “It’s about bringing the lower-achievers and lower-performers up.”

How Achievement & Growth are evaluated

Students’ performance on the mathematics, English language arts and science MCAS dictates the rating for the achievement category. Algonquin received 8 points out of 12 for the ‘all students category’ and 1 point out of 12 for the ‘’lowest performing students’ category, despite 97, 90 and 91 percent of students achieving proficient or higher in ELA, mathematics and science MCAS respectively in 2018.

Growth, according to McDonald, is dependent on a Student Growth Percentile (SGP) which is a growth score assigned to students relative to previous MCAS tests.

“If we don’t do well on the test and if our lower-level students don’t do well on the test, that will greatly affect how we are rated as a school,” Dore said.

According to McDonald, Algonquin’s past success on MCAS may inherently result in a lower rating because the state-mandated target is higher. For example, because 97 percent of Algonquin students are proficient or advanced on the ELA MCAS, it may be more difficult to improve the score, whereas other subjects may have more capacity for growth.

“They way that they rate it, if you see a decline and you get the zero, red flags and alarms go off,” McDonald said. “But if you look at the actual achievement and see that we went from 97 percent to 96.8 percent, for example, then can see the real story.”

The Other Indicators

High school completion is assessed based on a four-year cohort graduation rate, annual dropout rate and extended engagement rate. The extended engagement rate, according to the DESE, is the sum of the the total of the five-year cohort graduation rate plus the percentage of students from the cohort that remain enrolled in the school after five years. Algonquin scored an 11 out of 12, exceeding the target for graduation rate and dropout rate and meeting the target for extended engagement rate.  The graduation rate in 2017 was 98.1 percent, the dropout rate was .3 percent and the extended engagement rate was 97.3 percent in 2016.

The DESE measures progress towards attaining English language proficiency based on the achievement of English language learners. However, the DESE only makes accountability determinations if a subgroup has 20 or more students. Because only 1.4 percent of Algonquin’s total population is comprised of English language learners, this indicator was not factored into the school’s 2018 Accountability Report.

Chronic absenteeism, according to McDonald, is defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year, which amounts to 18 days. Algonquin earned a one out of four for all students in this category, which indicates no change from the 2017 rate.  The 2018 rate is 11.3 percent, or 166 students, who are categorized as being chronically absent.

Algonquin scored the lowest possible score of a zero of a possible four for the advanced coursework completion category. The DESE considers classes including, but not limited to, Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) and dual enrollment for this rating. Algonquin only offers AP classes, therefore, this category only takes into account AP classes for the school’s rating.

According to the DESE, “This [advanced coursework completion] indicator is reported as the percentage of all students enrolled in 11 and 12 grade that achieve a passing score in at least one advanced course.”

In 2017, 67.4 percent of 11 and 12 graders achieved a passing score in an AP class, compared to 66.2 percent in 2018. The school’s target for this category was 70.6 percent.

However, in 2018, Algonquin had 153 AP Scholars, who are students identified by the College Board as earning a score of a three or higher on at least three AP exams that year.

Therefore, it is important to note that the zero only means that a category declined relative to the school’s annual target.

Other Factors

For Algonquin’s overall rating, the school’s 46 percent towards meeting improvement targets is an average between the percentages for ‘all students’ and the ‘lowest performing students.’ This ‘all students’ category has 72 percent and the ‘lowest performing students category’ has 19 percent progress towards improvement targets.  In order to be identified as a member of the lowest performing students category, according to the DESE, “a student must be among the lowest [25 percent of] performing students when comparing average English language arts (ELA) and mathematics scaled scores.”

According to Principal Dr. Sara Pragluski Walsh, the achievement category plays a large part in the 19 percent progress for the lowest performing students, as it is weighted as 47.5 percent of the overall rating. Walsh explained that Algonquin already has in place tiered interventions, which include in-school one-on-one tutoring, specific online computer programs, after school subject-specific tutoring and outside of school tutoring.

“Our goal is to make sure that wherever a student is struggling we work to close their achievement gap, and that goes to the growth indicator on the school’s rating,” Walsh said. “ We need to grow the student slightly faster than their peers to get them to the same endpoint.”

The DESE growth score indicates that these students have demonstrated significant growth, earning three out of four points, which is the same score as received by the ‘all students’ category. Walsh believes that in time these students will be able to retake the MCAS test with success.

“We need to continue the great work we are doing,” Walsh said. “Because in that 19 percent, it shows that we earned a three out of total possible points of four for student growth. Our lowest performing students came in very low and we grew [their MCAS scores from past tests] significantly, which shows that by the time graduation comes, through retesting the student will obtain their goal.”

Using the Data Going Forward

According to McDonald, it may be too early to tell how accurate the system is in representing Algonquin and its student population. However, he does see the data as a useful indicator of areas in which the school could better provide support.

“Because we’re getting rated in areas we have not been rated in before, it lets us look at a lot of different areas and find out where we can improve so we can start to make a plan with the school leadership so we can say ‘Here’s what we can do now this year to effect improvement in these different areas,’” McDonald said. “I think that’s a positive thing.”

In future issues, The Harbinger will explore what accountability means for Algonquin and how Algonquin serves students who struggle.

About the Writer
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Elissa Gorman, Editor-in-Chief

Elissa Gorman began writing for the Harbinger her freshman year in journalism class. She has spent the past two years exploring news as an Assistant News...

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