The principals from the and the presented their combined two-year improvement plan to the Tewksbury School Committee Wednesday night, and the focus from both schools was on improving disappointing MCAS math scores.
Tewksbury students in the fifth through eighth grades, particularly those with special education needs, are lagging far behind the state averages for MCAS math performance, according to Wynn School Principal John Weir and Ryan School Principal Kevin McIntyre.
Students from both schools have failed to meet the state's Adequate Yearly Performance (AYP) standards in MCAS math testing for three straight years, and bringing those scores up to par will be the focus of both schools' efforts in the coming year, according to McIntyre and Weir.
"It's a serious issue," said Tewksbury Superintendent of Schools Dr. John O'Connor. "The state has identified a number of school districts and a number of schools as chronically failing (to meet MCAS performance standards), and we're not there yet, but we're headed toward becoming an under-performing school district."
AYP standards compare a school district's annual MCAS scores against previous years' scores, and require that all school districts show year-to-year improvement in MCAS performance in both English Language Arts (ELA) and math testing. Wynn School students have met AYP targets on the ELA portion of the MCAS tests for five straight years, and Ryan School students have met AYP targets in ELA during four of the past five years.
Math, however, is a different story, as approximately half of the students in both the Wynn and Ryan schools performed below the proficient level on MCAS math tests administered in 2011.
"It's a critical issue," said School Committee member Jayne Miller. "Particularly because they are comparing us to the state average, and we still don't measure up."
State averages include data from larger cities like Boston, Springfield and Worcester, where chronically underperforming schools are prevalent, Miller pointed out.
"People don't buy (homes) in the suburbs to be on par with the rest of the state," Miller said. "Cities are incorporated in the state averages, but we live in Tewksbury so we should not be comparing ourselves to state averages. We should be comparing ourselves to like communities with similar profiles."
Increasing Scores District-Wide
At the root of the problem is the Tewksbury School District's special education department, where the numbers are worse than the district's aggregate averages. At the Wynn, 100 percent of the eighth grade special education students and 94 percent of the seventh grade special education students are performing below proficient levels on MCAS math tests. At the Ryan, 95 percent of all special ed students (in both fifth and sixth grades) are scoring below proficient levels on MCAS math tests.
A special education student is identified as any student who has had an Individual Education Plan (IEP) designed for him or her because of some level of learning disability. In Tewksbury, just under 20 percent of the town's student population is designated as special ed, but only a small percentage of those students have low cognitive abilities, officials said.
"Special ed kids range from low functioning, all the way up to superior IQs with a learning disability," Miller pointed out. "So there is no reason that every (special ed) kid in the eighth grade should be in need of improvement. No reason at all."
Math scores for Tewksbury's low income students are also problematic, as nearly two-thirds of the Ryan School's low income students are performing below proficient levels, and over 70 percent of the Wynn School's low income students' scores are below proficient. Approximately 13 percent of Tewksbury's student population is designated as low income.
Plans in the Works
The problem is not new to O'Connor, who was practically met at the door with the issue when he was hired in the summer of 2010.
"School improvement has been an issue since day one," said O'Connor, who pointed out that the school department has already taken steps to improve MCAS performance. In the fall of 2011 the department hired Richard Pelletier as its new Director of Student Services, and Pelletier has been working on revamping and improving the special education department since he arrived. Last September, the special ed department added two new full time case managers to develop and oversee IEP's for Tewksbury's special needs students.
The school department also launched a brand new math curriculum, known as Go Math, in grades one through five last September. Ryan School sixth graders will be included in the Go Math curriculum beginning this fall.
Miller called the new math curriculum a step in the right direction.
"The new math series is aligned with what they're expected to know (for MCAS testing) and when they're expected to know it," Miller said. "We should see a boost in scores this year, and certainly next year."
Weir and McIntyre also plan to continue their school's Study Island Problem of The Day (SIPod) program, which has challenged upper elementary and middle school students to answer over a million practice test questions since its inception last year. SiPod is a web-based application that allows students to work on MCAS-level math problems both in school and at home.
"When the kids do it at home it engages the parents," Miller said. "And it gives us lots of data. The teachers know how many questions they did, and what they are struggling with."
According to O'Connor, improving Math and ELA MCAS scores is one of the department's top priorities.
"We're here to educate our children, so student achievement is our primary mission," O'Connor said. "I want to see, over the next couple years, our overall student performance improve so that we eliminate the gap between the sub groups (special needs and low income) and the rest of our students. I want to see all of our kids performing at the same level. I want all kids in Tewksbury to exceed the state average."