Superintendent’s Corner: Understanding student success – MCAS and beyond

By M. Martin O’Shea
Superintendent of Schools

This year in the Longmeadow Public Schools, we are exploring the question of what it means for students to be successful. With the recent release of the 2019 MCAS scores, we have an opportunity to thoughtfully reflect on this complex and consequential question. MCAS tests are one important measure of student success. The results inform families and educators how well students understand what is being taught and ultimately are used to guide improvement at the classroom, school, and district levels. Individual student reports were mailed to homes earlier this month and full school and district results are publicly available at Parents, guardians, and community members are encouraged to review this information and to reach out if there are questions.

Once again, Longmeadow should be proud of our learners’ performance. On all 17 tests, the percentage of Longmeadow students meeting or exceeding the expectations surpassed the percentage of students across the state performing at these levels. The state’s accountability system deemed the district to be making “substantial progress” toward meeting the state-defined improvement targets. Of course, MCAS helps shine a light on areas needing further analysis and solution building. For example, the reports show us that we must remain persistent in our efforts to close the performance gaps between “high needs” students, which includes economically disadvantaged students, English Language Learners and students with disabilities, and their learning peers.

MCAS is critically important as a measure of student success and as part of an accountability system that keeps teaching and learning focused on well-defined learning standards. However, we must remember that there is plenty about student learning and growth that MCAS does not tell us. In 1963, Sociologist William Bruce Cameron neatly captured this idea when he wrote that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Recently, as part of our exploration of what it means for students to be successful, Assistant Superintendent Sue Bertrand polled the LPS Parent Curriculum Advisory Council on how they define success for their children. Not surprisingly, no member of the Council identified MCAS scores or even grades as indicators of success. Instead, the PCAC members mentioned characteristics like passion, independence, problem-solving, kindness, and internal motivation.

Encouragingly, the exploration of success we have undertaken this year points us toward a renewed, broader vision of success that is rigorous and standards-based, but also encompasses the characteristics that our PCAC parents identified. This renewed, broader vision of student success is supported by many important factors. These include:

• The Massachusetts Department of Education’s strategic intent to support “Deeper Learning” where students are expected to work immersively on problems that are relevant to their individual identities and applicable to the wider community. New Massachusetts DESE Commissioner Riley recently signaled a shift at the state level when he expressed his concern schools were spending “too much time drilling students on tested skills, divorced from a cumulative, meaningful learning context. The results are that often students are disengaged and unable to connect their daily lessons with their current or future lives.”

• Longmeadow High’s newly defined Vision of a Graduate, built around stakeholder-generated 21st-century competencies such as independence, problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration.

• A stronger district-wide focus on competency or standards-based assessment and grading. To build on the work that has occurred in this area at the elementary level, every LPS middle educator recently participated in professional development focused on assessment that underscores student proficiency rather than grades.

• A new history and social studies curriculum framework that stresses active, project-based civic engagement. These projects, which are in the pilot stage at the middle level and high school level, will allow students to identify, study, and propose solutions to problems reflecting their interests and identities.

• A growing interest among LPS educators in creating opportunities for students to learn in community-based settings with community partners. This year several LHS students are taking part in a pilot internship program.

• A district-wide commitment to a set of social-emotional learning competencies focused on social awareness, self-awareness, self-management, responsible-decision making and relationship skills.

• Massachusetts learning standards and curriculum frameworks that promote inquiry and problem solving over content acquisition.

I am encouraged by the results our students achieve on MCAS and other standardized exams. I am more excited that the developments described above enhance and support Longmeadow Public Schools’ ongoing pursuit of a richer perspective of student success that is not narrowly or exclusively defined by test scores. We know that when we provide students with rigorous, self-directed, inquiry-based, immersive learning experiences, they will develop the habits of mind and personal traits that their parents desire for them. These are experiences that will serve them well throughout their personal, educational and professional lives.