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MCAS scores improving, but math scores ‘not in good shape’

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AYER — Math scores on the 10th-grade MCAS test have improved over a four-year period, according to Assistant Superintendent of Schools Brian McDermott.

“Clearly, less students failed, and that’s key,” he said.

Math is critical, he said, because it’s the subject in which Ayer schools are in “corrective action” relative to compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind law.

McDermott gave what he called a “high-level” overview of the MCAS results at the Nov. 7 School Committee meeting, using graphs that put the numbers in perspective. The graphs map the scores at various grade levels and provide comparative year-to-year and statewide data.

There has been a “substantial trend” upward from 2004 to 2007, he said. There are fewer scores in the failing category and more in the advanced and proficient categories on the high-stakes exam, he said, which show the district is moving “in the right direction.”

The grade-four scores have been “flat” in the warning category during the target period when they should have been moving upward, said McDermott.

“It’s a trend, yes, but it’s only two years on the graph,” he said.

But the results are troubling.

“In general, our math scores are really not in good shape,” he said. “It’s been a key area of concern for a number of years. The data says we’re moving upward, but we still have a long way to go.”

It’s clear the district has to do more to get scores up, said Chairman Daniel Sallet. But the questions then become what, precisely, should be done, he said, and how to track whether improvement plans are working.

“We look at it every year and cut it a different way, but time’s running out,” he said. “I’d like to target a strategy and stick with it.”

Member Daniel Gleason asked if planners had looked at other schools that perform well to see if there’s something different those districts are doing that might work in Ayer.

“It’s disturbing that we’re at the bottom among other surrounding communities and across all grade levels,” he said, even in towns “not that different” from Ayer, such as Lunenburg.

Ayer Middle-High School Principal Don Parker and Page Hilltop School Principal Robert Ackerman said they’re looking at everything, including curricula in other towns.

“There’s a ton of sharing that goes on,” said Ackerman. “But there’s no one solution You can’t compare Ayer to Harvard, for example. It’s not that simple.”

And there’s a bigger picture to consider. In some subject areas and grade levels, he said Ayer scores higher than other communities outside the region, even more affluent ones.

Responding to disappointing performances in the “open response” areas of the MCAS test, Parker spotlighted a key problem. He also proposed a doable remedy of the “practice makes perfect” variety.

“In equivocal terms, the question is how to teach students to write in the content areas math as well as English,” he said. “The answer is good instruction. That’s the main thing.”

While most teachers are on track, he said this best practice must be consistent and district-wide.

Acknowledging that it takes longer to correct essay questions and that a standard format is a simple, effective way to determine what students know about a subject, he said it’s not enough. They must also be able to write about it.