2017-10-20 / Community

Test scores show city students struggle in math

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Annual Maine Education Assessment (MEA) scores are out, and while South Portland students track and even occasionally exceed results logged in literacy and science by their peers statewide, they lag behind in math skills, with as many as 84.5 percent of students in one grade failing to meet basic standards, and an average of 63.5 percent failing across all tested grade levels.

The school board reviewed the annual results at a September 25 workshop session.

“We had a thorough and thoughtful discussion,” Superintendent Ken Kunin said in an email the following day. “We will continue to analyze our scores with staff to ensure that our plans for continual improvement are on track.”

“We need some work still, I’m not even going to sugar-coat it,” school board chairman Dick Matthews said in a September 26 interview.

“Our numbers aren’t horrible, but you can definitely tell that we need work, especially in the math department. It’s an area I have a concern about. But the good thing is that we have plans in place right now. Obviously, these plans are new, so it’s too soon to see the results.”

Matthews said the district has already hired extra math coaches to help bridge the testing gap and has launched a new math program called “Investigations.” That same strategy was used with success to boost language arts scores in recent years, he said.

“Years ago we struggled with literacy and so we just infiltrated the school department with literacy coaches,” Matthews said. “Now, if you look at our English and literacy scores, they’re right up there. I’m hoping that by doing that with the math coaches and the new math program, our numbers may go up over the next couple of years.”

As to why South Portland test scores are low, especially compared to neighboring communities, Matthews said the comparison is really not a fair one. A large percentage of South Portland students are either from economically disadvantaged homes, or homes where English is a second language, and often both.

“If you look at Yarmouth, Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, and Scarborough, their (test) numbers are very high. But their populations for those particular groups are very low. We have a wider variety of student backgrounds. But if you look at places with similar types of students, we are above Portland, and way above Westbrook,” Matthews said.

In literacy testing, South Portland was nearly even with the statewide average on tests administered in last spring, between March 20 and April 14. On average for grades 3-8, and 11 (the latter of which uses the traditional SAT as its test), 53.95 percent of South Portland students either met or exceeded the standards set for grade-level proficiency by the Maine Learning Results. That was actually a little better than the 52.58 percent of students statewide who made the grade.

Of course, the flip-side is that the almost half of all South Portland students — 46.05 percent — either failed to meet the standards, or fell significantly below the level of expected understanding for their grade level.

However, Kunin says that recent changes in those standards have helped to depress the results.

“The Maine Learning Results for mathematics and English language arts is now the Common Core State Standards,” we wrote in an October 9 email, in answer to questions from the Sentry about this year’s MEA results. “We believe that this has meant a more rigorous test than the former NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) assessments and so scores overall for Maine are lower because our state expectation is higher.”

In science, which only tests at grades 5, 8, and 11, local students landed within spitting distance of their peers statewide. In all, 59.59 percent of South Portland students met or exceeded the test standards, compared to 61.07 percent statewide.

In math, however, the performance gap was larger. There, 36.59 percent of South Portland students met standards, compared to 38.31 percent statewide. But again, the number that stuck out for Matthews was that a significant majority of local students — 63.47 percent — failed to meet math standards at all. At no grade level did more than half of the students meet expectations, with the failure rate ranging from 51.9 percent in grade 7 to 84.5 percent in grade 6.

In his Oct. 9 email, Kunin confirmed Matthews’ overview of how the school’s approach to literacy would be replicated for math.

“We have a full-time reading teacher in every building,” Kunin wrote. “This started quite some time ago. In addition we have more ed tech and teacher support for literacy in our Title 1 schools. These positions have provided direct student support (to individuals and small group) while also providing support for teacher learning about practices to improve literacy learning.”

Title 1 schools are those that receive extra federal dollars due to having a higher percentage of students from low-income families, as measured by the number who qualify for free and reduced-price meals. In South Portland’s case, that means Kaler Elementary and Skillin Elementary

“For mathematics,” Kunin said, “we have four teachers serving as math coaches for part or all of their day. Our math coaches meet weekly. They are co-teaching, teaching, and letting others observe, co-planning, helping teachers use the resources to the maximum benefit for student learning and in general supporting the professional learning of classroom teachers.

“Our two Title I schools get more of that type of support than the other three elementary schools because some of the funding comes from Title I and is limited to these two schools per federal guidelines.”

For the past several years, the state has made at least five major revisions to the MEA tests. In advisories to school districts, the Maine Department of Education has said that makes it impossible to compare results over time, to gauge overall trends. However, the test has remained essentially the same for the past two years, and Department od Education has results for each school on its website for both the 2017 and 2016 tests.

In a comparison of results from those two years, a few results stand out.

For example, in 2016, 60.2 percent of grade 11 students proved proficient in math, whereas the Grade 11 results for last spring dropped to 33.2 percent. However, Kunin said this is not a reflection of poor performance on the part of this year’s graduating class. It is instead, a measure of how unusual the Class of 2017 truly was.

“The group that took the SAT test in 2016 was an unusual outlier group that had always performed remarkably high throughout their school career,” he said. “We do believe, however, that building a stronger foundation for mathematics learning starting in early elementary school will pay dividends in terms of improved results over time.”

In other cases, the results seem to indicate variations not with the students, but the teachers.

In math testing, Grade 6 (which include students at both Mahoney and Memorial middle schools), appears to show a dip in results in the first year of transition from the elementary schools.

The state Department of Education website shows that for the 2015-2016 school year Grade 5 proved 33.3 percent proficient at math, but then dropped to just 15.5 percent meeting or exceeding standards in Grade 6, for the 2016- 2017 school year. Meanwhile the students in Grade 6 for the 2016 test proved 27 percent proficient before jumping to 48.1 percent meeting or exceeding standards when in Grade 7 for the 2017 test.

“This is primarily a curricular and instructional alignment issue as by eighth grade we are typically at or above the state average,” Kunin said, explaining the Grade 6 dip. “We also believe that this underscores the need for us to build a stronger foundation throughout elementary schools.”

Asked what he would like the public to know about South Portland’s approach to this year’s MEA results, Kunin bullet pointed a few highlights.

“We have a number of things we consider as we look at this year’s scores,” he wrote.

“1. Our scores are at or above state averages, particularly when considering our overall population with particularly higher numbers of English Language Learners (ELL). Typical districts in Maine have 1 percent or less and we have almost 10 percent of our students requiring English Language Learner services and supports.

“2. We aim to improve.

“3. The scores give us confirmation that our plan around math will serve to build a stronger foundation.

“4. Cross sectional scores — comparing different groups at the same grade level from year to year — will lead to some variation, and,

“5. We analyze this data at the district, school and student level to support improved results.”

Return to top