Leverett officials protest school downgrade after test opt-outs 

  • Leverett Town Hall FILE PHOTO

Friday, October 14, 2016

LEVERETT — Town officials are asking the state to reverse its decision to lower the elementary school’s accountability rating, saying the move smacks of retaliation over some students’ refusal to take a standardized test.

The school was among 14 across the state that were downgraded to Level 3 due to low student participation in the MCAS or PARCC exams this spring. The state’s five-level accountability rating system measures neediness of local schools and determines the level of state review and governance.

While the system aims to measure schools’ progress in increasing student achievement, in part from test scores, it also takes into consideration when some students do not take the test. The result is that schools with stellar test results are sometimes lumped in with underachieving ones.

Leverett is now Level 3, a category that includes the lowest 20 percent of performing schools or, like Leverett, those that have less than 90 percent test participation.

In an Oct. 4 letter to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, the Select Board argued against the designation.

The board wrote that the “rating reclassification bears no relation to the actual performance and quality of Leverett School education. Rather, it appears to be a retaliatory response to the decision by some of our students and their parents to not participate” in the PARCC test.

In fact, the Leverett school’s average math score increased 5 percent compared to last year, while there was no significant change in English scores. But only 82 percent of students took those exams this year, prompting the downgrade.

“The department’s reclassification of the Leverett School demonstrates an incoherent structure for accountability and assessment,” the board wrote. “It provides Leverett with no tools or indicators, and fails to show any actual educational problem.”

The link between state accountability rating and test participation has been mandated by federal law for 15 years, beginning with the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The federal government mandates that any school accepting federal funding have a 95 percent participation rate,” said Stephen G. Sireci, director of the Center for Educational Assessment at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “The state requirement is basically just echoing the federal requirement.”

Level 1 schools are among the state’s highest performing. Level 2 schools are ones that are not meeting achievement gap-narrowing goals, or those that have fewer than 95 percent test participation. The state may suggest targeted assistance for those schools. Performance is progressively lower and state involvement higher at levels 3, 4 and 5. Level 5 schools are ones that enter state receivership.

In a past statement, Chester said the 95 percent participation threshold ensures that schools test all students and not just their highest performers. “In addition, we are committed to closing achievement gaps, and with some students not participating, we have an incomplete understanding of the gaps,” he said.

Sireci said that PARCC and MCAS can provide useful information for parents and do a good job measuring what’s taught in the classroom. However, he added that opt-out movements are often motivated by families who disagree with the way that such data are used by schools and the government, such as linking scores to teacher or district performance reviews.

For example, some 20 percent of test-eligible students in New York last year did not take that state’s standardized test. Student scores were previously linked to teacher performance evaluations, until Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year called for a moratorium on the practice.’

‘Small numbers’

Peter d’Errico, chairman of the Leverett Select Board, said the accountability rating system does not work in rural areas.

“We’re talking about regulations that don’t work mechanically,” he said. “The formulas that are created don’t work with small numbers.”

For example, a particularly strong opt-out movement at Swift River School in neighboring New Salem resulted in just 13 of 81 students, or 16 percent, taking the PARCC exam. But the school was not downgraded because the state found that there was “insufficient data” to give it an accountability rating, likely because so few students actually took the test.

Meanwhile, in Leverett, 56 of the 68 eligible students — or 82 percent — took the test, which was enough for the school to earn a downgraded rating.

D’Errico compared such formulas to Rube Goldberg machines, over-engineered gadgets that perform simple tasks in an ornate fashion. “The difference is that Rube Goldberg’s devices work,” he said. “The light bulb went on, or whatever it was supposed to do.”

He said he hopes the state can further explain its accountability rating system.

An official from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner could not be reached for comment earlier this week.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.