The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 6, 2009

School works to improve MCAS scores in English

The Carlisle School Committee (CSC) learned at their January 21 meeting about efforts underway to improve students’ scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) in English Language Arts (ELA). A comparison of scores between the Carlisle School and 21 other area schools indicated Carlisle ranked in the bottom fourth for those in grades 4, 5 and 6 (see “Carlisle School seeks MCAS improvements for grades 4, 5, and 6,” Mosquito, November 14, 2008).

“Everyone in our school has been working very hard to see if we can bring up our scores in ELA,” reported Carlisle School Elementary Principal Patrice Hurley as she and Middle School Principal Joyce Mehaffey described the school’s efforts to prepare students for the MCAS tests. Full-day team meetings have been held for grades 3, 4, 5, and the middle school, at which the teams reviewed students’ scores and evaluated the types of questions and responses. In addition, the middle school team meetings have included fifth-grade teachers this year, said Mehaffey. “It’s great having the fifth-grade teachers there,” she said. It allows the teachers to coordinate their teaching as the students transition to sixth grade.

On the MCAS test, students are asked to read a passage, and write a response to a question. Students are graded on what facts or evidence from the reading is included in their response. “At our team meetings we looked at students’ writing,” explained Mehaffey, “and why the students were not doing well.” In the reading comprehension section, the team found students were not citing evidence in their written responses. “At all grade levels now,” said Mehaffey, “students are working on reading different pieces, and answering prompts.”

The teams have developed a set of expectations for each writing assignment and each grade has examples of written assignments that satisfy all the requirements of a top-level paper. These papers are used as a guide for students as they develop their writing, and as scoring guides for the teachers.

Support for students

The school has put into place a number of supports to help students perform better on the standardized tests. “We’ve established weekly ELA clubs, similar to the Math clubs, for grades 3, 4, and 5. Those are taught by the principals and Literary Specialist Steve Bober,” Hurley explained. “Almost every one of our students is reading at grade level, though some are reading quite a bit above grade level. We are helping students bring up their reading abilities.”

Curriculum review in progress

The ELA Curriculum Review is underway to evaluate how ELA is taught at the school. The group conducting the review includes Bober and Literary Specialist Sue LaPorte, as well as Superintendent Marie Doyle, teachers, and parents. “What we teach them may not be what they learn,” she explained, so assessments are being developed to gauge the effectiveness of the ELA program. This will help identify areas of need. Once they are finished reviewing the instructional writing program they will review the reading program, and lastly the speaking and listening skills program. “Steve Bober and Sue LaPorte are doing a great job,” added Mehaffey. “We depend on them a lot to help us focus and move forward.”

The review of the ELA program includes examining “three areas for teachers,” Hurley said. The team will identify training that may be needed, the tools the teachers may need, and the changes that may be needed. “You can see we have taken a number of steps at every level,” she said. “We’re hoping that will result in an improvement in ELA scores.”

Professional training

Hurley said professional development for next year will be focused on ELA. The Concord elementary schools continue to invite Carlisle teachers to attend the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project Network of Columbia University during Concord’s professional development days. Concord elementary schools are implementing a “very specific ELA program,” explained Mehaffey, “and we will look at aspects of it that we can use.”

Committee Chair Chad Koski asked, “Are the kids getting the hang of it?” Mehaffey replied, “They are. They are learning very specifically about getting evidence and adding concrete comments. It’s a research skill.” Committee member Dale Ryder commented that research writing “is a life skill that you need to learn to do.” Mehaffey agreed, saying preparing for the MCAS tests is “almost secondary,” and that the ability to read for content develops the ability to understand inferences in written material. She said there is an increase in writing in all content areas, not just in ELA. “The standards will be used in Science, Social Studies, and Math writing as well,” she said. “Will we see the results this spring with the MCAS test?” asked committee member Bill Fink. “That’s what we hope,” replied Mehaffey. ∆

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito