Southborough selectman says below-average MCAS growth a troubling trend

Above: Southborough’s MCAS Growth in Math and English for 2011 relative to comparable towns

We’ve had discussions on this blog before about whether MCAS scores are an accurate way to judge the performance of our schools, but Southborough Selectman John Rooney said recently that the scores in our district suggest a troubling trend.

Data from the state Board of Education shows Southborough’s MCAS Growth – a new metric that measures year-over-year growth – is the lowest of ten districts the state says are comparable to ours. More troubling, says Rooney, Southborough has been below the state average in math for the past four years and in English for the past three.

(For a more detailed explanation of what the MCAS Growth data means, check out this article by the Metrowest Daily News or do your own digging on the DOE website.)

When the K-8 School Committee discussed the most recent MCAS numbers last October, they acknowledged the results were mixed, and said the district needed to focus on math in particular, but they did not discuss the growth numbers in depth.

“(MCAS Growth data), which has been available for years to our school committee, appears to depict a disconcerting decline in the educational quality of our schools,” Rooney wrote in an email. “Equally troubling, however, is the complete lack of acknowledgement or response from our school committee when they reviewed that data at their meeting in October 2011.”

Rooney said the discussion of budget and performance metrics needs to go hand-in-hand. “I am an ardent supporter of education. As a community we need to prioritize our school funding to ensure we produce educational quality,” he wrote.

Referencing DOE financial data from 2008 – the most recent available on its website – Rooney said Southborough spends more per pupil than comparable towns like Acton, Boxford, Northborough, and Sudbury. But an analysis presented at the K-8 School Committee meeting earlier this month paints a different picture.

The school committee’s analysis, which looks at data from 2010, shows Southborough ranks near or below average in spending per pupil and teacher salaries relative to comparable districts. While the analysis does not look at MCAS scores, it shows Northborough-Southborough ranks well in terms of SAT and AP scores and graduation rate. (You can see the complete analysis here.)

“It all shows we’re building a good foundation here at the K-8 level,” School Committee member Paul Desmond said of the analysis.

What do you think? Are you concerned by the MCAS Growth data? Will it influence your decision on the school budget this year? Would you like to see the schools take a harder look at performance data, or are they doing enough? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Jeff
10 years ago

Maybe we should give the teachers another raise or have less children per classroom??? Or maybe the parents should start taking responsability???

Matthew Brownell
10 years ago

This is **completely** unacceptable.

C’mon, gang. We need to get better.

I am expecting considerably more action and accountability from the K-8 School Committee than a dismissive party-line remark like ” . . we’re building a good foundation here at the K-8 level”.

resident too
10 years ago

We pour enough money into our school system. Things should be MUCH better.

Sara
10 years ago

Jeff, I couldn’t agree with you more.

Shubu Mukherjee
10 years ago

I applaud Mr. John Rooney for bringing this up. Southborough has not fared well in K8 MCAS, particularly in Math, for years since its inception. Before we moved to Southborough 4 years back, we heard that Southborough has one of the best public school systems. Yet in the MCAS scores for some of the years I had checked, Southborough wasn’t even in the top 30 in the state.

I had brought this issue up before the K8 school committee as well as with Dr. Gobron. I am sure both the school committee and Dr. Gobron want to do the right thing. However, everyone in the committee, including Ms. Murdock, Dr. Gobron, and others stated on record (this was videotaped) that MCAS is a poor metric to judge student performance and to compare with other schools.

I had challenged the Southborough school system to come up with any metric with which (1) they can hold themselves accountable in whether student performance is really improving and (2) they can compare our system to other schools in the state. I got no response to this either. This is a very unfortunate state of affairs. And, MCAS is the only known quantitative metric we can use.

There are a few areas Southborough school system have done well: in music, in Kindergarten (Mary Finn got a national award of sorts), and some school system surveys. Unfortunately, some of the widely quoted surveys use how much Southborough spends per student as a key metric and Southborough appears to be doing well by that metric. Not clear if that actually reflects student performance.

Compare this to Shrewsbury, which is not listed above, but is one of the top in the state. I know one of the teachers in Shrewsbury and she explained to me how they are doing so much better, even though Shrewsbury class sizes are bigger than Southborough’s. Shrewsbury is using proper and systematic Math programs to help students “learn” instead of just take tests better.

The popular argument against MCAS is that it is a standardized test and students typically don’t learn math if they try to prepare for this test. I disagree very strongly. I have worked with my daughter on MCAS and the level of Math expected by MCAS is actually very reasonable. In one instance (which I know for a fact), the Southborough school system had students sit for the MCAS without covering all the topics expected on MCAS. Even then, the MCAS math results weren’t bad for that class. When I delved into this further, I found that 50% of the students (this # is purely anecdotal though) take outside help on Math, such as Kumon, Sylvan, Russian School of Math, etc.

Despite all this, I think Southborough has some great teachers and I have met a number of them because both my kids go to the public school system here. I think the school adminstration is doing whatever they have to do to raise money at the Town meetings. And, the Town of Southborough certainly has no dearth of high achievers, so I would be surprised if their kids don’t do well later in life. Most Southborough parents are actively involved with their kids and kids’ school. So, overall I do think Southborough kids will do well.

But we are still pretty bad in MCAS. So, what gives? Are we going to brush this metric aside as we have done repeatedly in the past? Or, are we going to expect the school system to do better?

John Butler
10 years ago

The graph at the top of this story shows the Towns that the State says we should compare ourselves to. We are the only Town below the State average for Student Growth in both English and Math. The magnitude that separates us from the performance of our peers is described as significant (>10) by the State DOE. Furthermore, although the graph shows one year, this is not a single year aberration. If you download the “districts.xls” DART spreadsheet from the State, at the link provided, you will see that this problem appears to have persisted for several years, and only our performance is consistently below the State average through this period.

Note that the statistic that is discussed by Dr. Gobron and the School Committee called “Adequate Yearly Progress”, although it has a confusingly similar name, is not the “Student Growth” statistic shown in the graph of State data. Furthermore “Student Growth” is the statistic that the Massachusetts Teacher’s Association, under some pressure, has suggested could be incorporated into teacher evaluations. See http://www.hepg.org/hel/article/491. So, this is not an obscure or minor statistic. It is a centerpiece of the testing component of educational delivery evaluation systems.
I would suggest that we avoid the temptation to link this to budget issues. This is a quality question, not a budget question in any obvious way.

I think Southborough should not be performing consistently and uniquely below State-wide averages among our peer communities on a major summary statistic such as this. Even if you believe, as I do, that schools should not be organized around standardized testing performance, these are results that appear significant enough to merit community-wide discussion. Why is this consistently happening? What, if anything, should be done about it? How can this discussion best occur?

John Boiardi
10 years ago
Reply to  John Butler

If you follow the link in Mr Butlers post, Mr Paul Toner, President of Mass Teachers Association says ” for a long time people have said teachers unions have prevented firing of underperforming teachers. But it is not the unions. It’s the administrators and supervisors —- “.

Interesting. What else could Mr toner say? What does Dr. Gobron and and his staff say? What should the taxpayers say? Give them more money. Give them less money. Look at test scores. Don’t look at test scores. How does a taxpayer resolve low performance. How would Mr Butler, a business man and entrepreneur , handle such performance in one of his businesses?

All I have left is my silver bullet, the ballot.

Confused
10 years ago
Reply to  John Boiardi

Mr. Boiardi,

I have read your frequent posts which all seem to have a common theme which appears to be attacking Dr. Gobron and the School Committees. That is your right.

My question concerns your post which states, in part, “What does Dr. Gobron and and his staff say?” Well, you are an appointed member of the Advisory Committee. You had your chance to ask Dr. Gobron and the School Committee that question last night.

Imagine my chagrin when I watched last night’s telcast only to see that you had skipped the Advisory meeting with the Selectmen to discuss the school budgets speaks volumes. Again, it is your right to skip the meeting. But, come on! Less than 12 hours after you gave up your chance to confront Dr Gobron, here you are again criticizing him?

I urge other blog readers to follow my example by using Mr Boirdi’s “silver bullet, the ballot” to mark John Boiardi as a write-in candidate for both the Southborough and Regional School Committees.

Neil Rossen
10 years ago

Pay more, get less. I think this confirms that teachers are overpaid in relationship to performance. Does anyone still take Gobron and the School Committee seriously? Be sure that there will be calls for higher taxes to correct this failure.

Mark
10 years ago

So are people actually making light of this situation..so some are suggesting that increasing class size and paying teachers less might fix what appears to be a serious problem? Ignore the classroom altogether and focus on the role of the parent(s) or guardians is the solution to these poor MCAS results? Sounds like a pathetic solution to pathetic problem.

John Boiardi
10 years ago

Great posts by Mr Butler and Mr Mukherjee,

Shrewsbury has a much lower per pupil cost and a higher student teacher ratio with better results than Southborough . The school administration advises us that the standard metrics ( MVAS, SAT, etc) shouldn’t be considered.
My question is- how should we look at Soutborough’s performance? Should we give them more tax dollars, less tax dollars? what does the administration want tax payers to consider when asking for budget increases.

Our (tax payer) representation is our School Committee. What our they doing to improve school performance? Obviously increasing the budget every year hasn’t done it. How about evaluating programs, teacher and administration performance?

The only alternative I have is the ballot box.

Shubu Mukherjee
10 years ago

What I would love to see from the Southnorough school system are:

1. A comparative evaluation of Southborough school system against others.

2. A five year plan and vision as to how we will improve the school system.

I am willing to pay higher taxes of I see a convincing case and appropriate controls and accountability in place.

I had proposed this before, but this proposal fell on deaf ears.

-Shubu

Neil Rossen
10 years ago

Shubu, are you really prepared to vote for increased taxes to pay for the school in the face of this report? The teaching profession dislikes objective testing – are we supposed to accept that? If other districts do fine on MCAS, why can’t we? Frankly, I like a measurement that can be used to compare performance with elsewhere – even if it can be nitpicked. It seems you may be prepared to pay more for an “evaluation” and a five year “vision”. I would prefer to cut salaries and reinstate them based on RESULTS.
Sorry if that sounds too much like running a business.

Shubu Mukherjee
10 years ago
Reply to  Neil Rossen

hi Neil,

It should be like running a business. Better schools increase property values, so it is a win-win for both citizens and students.

Yes, I am willing to pay higher taxes, if and only if I am convinced that there is a proper plan in place with appropriate metrics of evaluation and accountability. CEOs do get fired for under-performance, right? Please note that I am _not_ proposing the same coolaid the school dolls out every year … that is, if we don’t raise taxes, the sky will fall …

I don’t think firing teachers is necessarily the solution and I personally believe teachers are in general underpaid. Nevertheless, Southborough has indeed some great teachers. Several surveys show what motivates teachers is not money, so in this respect there is a fundamental difference between corporations and schools.

What we need from Southborough schools is better focus, accountability, and better programs. Modeling ourselves after existing and successful schools don’t hurt. Regrettably, current school adminstration doesn’t think we have anything to learn from schools that are performing really well, even with a lower teacher-to-student ration than Southborough.

-Shubu

M
10 years ago

Thank you all for the valuable information, discussion and suggestions. As for Mr. Mukherjee’s comment about good schools keeping up property values, I am afraid it is too late. The MCAS reports and other readily available assessments of school performance are already out and contributing to real estate data. Potential buyers see this information. We no longer have the school system that would be the most desirable, especially considering our taxes. It needs an immediate major plan and I think Mr. Mukherjee has the right idea,

Neil Rossen
10 years ago
Reply to  M

M, bear in mind that the unions are against merit based incentives so there is little we can do from that point of view. Be prepared for Gobron to launch into a loud tirade that we must throw more money at the problem. Shubu believes teachers aren’t motivated by money , but ths begs the question of why the large (secret) pay increase of last year and the previous year.
Who knows, there may be some resistance this time round, but I doubt it. Gobron’s supporters show up in force.

M
10 years ago

Can someone please tell me what procedures would follow, if, during Town Meeting, the School Budget is NOT approved by the voters?

Al Hamilton
10 years ago
Reply to  M

M

If the school budget was voted down the and reconsideration was defeated then the school committee would have to go back to the drawing board and draft another budget proposal. That proposal would be debated and voted on at another town meeting which would probably be scheduled about 2 months after the ATM

We have to pass a school budget or have a very minimal one (far lower that we spend) imposed on us.

That being said there is nothing dishonorable about voting NO. The budget is really the only way that Town Meeting has of expressing itself.

Realtor
10 years ago

Confused, Excellent post. I watched the entire meeting the other night. The only person who asked real questions about the budget was Mr. Rooney. The only person who seemed to have done any review before the meeting was Mr. Rooney. This was for all three budgets, Assabet, K8 and Algonquin. The other selectmen did not ask any questions about the budgets and just praised the schools, while advisory seemed to be taking up space. I thought advisory was supposed to actually review budgets for town meeting?

Neil Rossen
10 years ago
Reply to  Realtor

You’ve got that right, Realtor. I posted this on a parrallel thread:
“Other than Mr Rooney, sounds like the Advisory Committee are not conducting the vigorous examination of the School that many taxpayers are asking for. Here we have M Langella saying “you guys do a great job”!! Of what? Poor test results, or just blowing a whole lot of taxpayer dollars?. Perhaps we could understand better where Advisory is coming fron if that is answered. Gobron’s usual pompous, evasive response is to be expected as is more of ther same at Town Meeting. Is Advisory prepared to stand for that? If so, I just give up.
“Great job”. Really?”
That thread is at https://mysouthborough.com/2012/02/29/gobron-defends-school-performance/#comment-105535
I had hoped that Advisory would mount a vigorous defense of taxpayers at Town Meeting. Faint chance of that though. “Great job” seems to be where they are coming from.

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