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MCAS Results Presented to School Committee

Nov 29, 2019 06:00AM ● By Pamela Johnson

Bellingham Superintendent of Schools Peter Marano

written by Amy Bartelloni, Contributing Writer

At its October 29th meeting, Superintendent Peter Marano briefed the Bellingham School Committee on results of the spring 2019 MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) tests. He and Assistant Superintendent Carolyn Rafferty opened the meeting by presenting a district-wide view on scores and where Bellingham stands, as well as background on the test. While the amount of information presented was admittedly overwhelming, each principal tried to break down scores for his or her school, as well as addressing what they’re doing moving forward to address strengths and areas of concern.
This year’s test reflects changes to the 20-year-old MCAS assessment, which was upgraded to better measure the critical skills that students will need for success in the 21st century, including deeper understanding, knowledge application, synthesizing, and writing. 
Marano gave a brief background of the statewide test: “For students to graduate from any Massachusetts state high school, they have to reach a certain score on their MCAS exam, regardless of the number of credits they earn, to get their full diploma,” he said. Students who don’t make that threshold have to complete an Educational Proficiency Plan, or EPP, Marano explained.

“An EPP is a plan that’s developed to include a review of the student’s strengths, areas of growth based on their MCAS exams, and other assessments,” he told the Committee. They look at courses the students will take in grades 11 and 12 and assessments in class. “They need to take challenging courses throughout the remainder of high school, pass them, do well on their assessments, and they can move toward proficiency and still earn their competency determination and high school diploma,” he said.

In other words, as School Committee Chairman Mike Reed noted, “They set the bar, but it’s not a hard stop.” Marano reminded them that the EPP has been around a long time; it’s not something new.

Before Marano walked through Bellingham’s scores compared to the state averages, Rafferty introduced new scoring levels for grades 3-10, replacing the categories of warning, failing, proficient, needs improvement and advanced with not meeting/partially meeting/meeting or exceeding expectations. She noted that overall there was a concerning dip in grade-four scores in both ELA and math.

“I think that when you look across the scores, we have pockets that are meeting the state average and pockets that aren’t meeting the average,” Marano said. “We need to do a deeper dive into why that’s happening and take a look specifically at the standards that are a concern and also the ones we’re doing well in too.”
The state assesses the town’s progress toward improvement targets, using a point-based system. Points are assigned in categories of achievement, growth, high school completion, progress toward attaining English language proficiency, and additional indicators. Because of the addition of Project Lead the Way and AP (Advanced Placement) courses, the district achieved points for advanced coursework completion, and 3 out of 4 points in the drop-out rate category, meaning that Bellingham has a low percentage of students dropping out. 

Chronic absenteeism was a concern at non-high-school grades, but the district received 2 out of 4 points at the high school level. Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10% of the total school year (which is 18 absences), regardless of whether it’s an excused sick day or not. “We need to look at why kids are missing this much school,” Marano said. It’s an issue the School Committee asked for more information on at a future meeting.

“We did earn some points, not as many as we’d like, obviously,” Marano summarized. “We didn’t earn points at the high school grade levels for math and science achievement, but we did earn 4 out of 4 in ELA.”

Before moving on to individual schools, Chairman Mike Reed discussed digging deeper into the dip in fourth-grade scores. “It’s one thing if there’s a transition going on to grade 4, but we need to explore that. Is there a way we can ease the transition?” he asked. “Is that the right setting for them? Is this an aberration this year? These are significantly lower numbers.” 
Principals went on to discuss results from individual schools:

• Stall Brook Elementary School 

Principal Emily Luuri reported that between 2018 and 2019, there wasn’t a lot of change in math scores. In both years approximately 50% of students were at the meeting or exceeding level. “We did have some weaknesses in math,” she pointed out, “which has been a pattern for us.” These included algebraic thinking, and operations. She noted that students are having a hard time making sense of the conceptual meaning of math. While they can memorize equations and do facts, they struggle with word problems. “The good thing is that’s Bridges’ strong point, the new math program we’re implementing,” she said, adding that she’s expecting these numbers to improve next year. 

ELA was an area of strength for the school. Last year, 54% of students met or exceeded expectations, a number that jumped to 72% this year. “Reading was our biggest strength in the area of selective response,” Lurri continued. Areas of concern included written expression. Students scored low on idea development in the two written essays. “What that’s telling me is that we really need to work on our essay development and idea development,” she said. Rafferty pointed out that there will be only one essay on the new MCAS exam, which could affect scores going forward.

Next steps are reflected in Stall Brook’s school improvement goal: “During the 2019-2020 school year, the Stall Brook team will improve students’ written expression by examining the current way we teach writing across the curriculum to ensure alignment to the Massachusetts Language and Writing Standards and the Workshop Model of Instruction, as mentioned in the BPS school improvement plan.” 
Action items include the following: 
  • Educators will work collaboratively to align our current writing tools/practices with the 2017 Massachusetts English Language Arts and Literacy Curriculum framework,
  • Educators will work collaboratively to educate one another on 2017 Massachusetts English Language Arts and Literacy Curriculum Framework to ensure vertical alignment across all grades,
  • Educators will revise assessment/progress monitoring rubrics at each grade level to the 2017 Massachusetts English Language Arts and Literacy Curriculum Framework,
  • Educators will analyze student work using revised/updated rubrics,
  • PD [Professional Development] opportunities will be provided on integrating written expression across the curriculum,
  • PD for empowering writers (grade 3 teachers).

• Joseph F. DiPietro Elementary 

Principal Miriam Friedman told the Committee that DiPietro’s greatest strength was in ELA, and 54% of students exceeded or met expectations. The most consistent domain at DiPietro was language, while reading and writing were their weaker domains. Using the school’s iReady test scores, they determined that their biggest areas of focus would be phonics and vocabulary. “If we can strengthen those, that has long-term impact because that affects our reading comprehension, which then affects our writing.”

In math, 43% of DiPietro students met or exceeded expectations. Their greatest strength was in numbers and operations in base 10, while geometry and measurement and data were the weaker domains. Looking at iReady data, they decided to focus on algebraic thinking for the greatest long-term impact. 

Plans to improve achievement levels include the following:
  • Regular data meetings to progress monitor using benchmark assessment data,
  • Flexible grouping to allow for reteaching and practice to ensure mastery,
  • Specialists will co-teach, model, share resources, and closely follow Tiers 2 and 3 students. 

• Bellingham Memorial School (grades 4 – 7)

Principal David Cutler praised the district’s focus on vertical alignment and the administration and principals for being on the same page. The areas of strength he spoke about reflect things the central office and Mrs. Rafferty have put in place to make sure everyone is speaking the same language, including programs like MTSS (Multi-Tiered Systems of Support) math and MTSS literacy, Keys to Literacy, Enrichment programs, and Actively Learn. He called these the foundational work, describing BMS as a beautiful mansion that’s lacked a strong foundation. 

“Now, with the work that the team has been doing, we’ve been able to build and pour that foundation to solidify the amazing building that it’s holding up,” he said, before shifting to reflect on the school’s MCAS results.

“In a lot of areas, we’re not too far off the mark; however, we want to get better,” he said. “It’s really about changing the climate and culture of a building, and really letting them know we’re not doing this to check a box; we’re doing this because it’s right for the 700 little faces in our building and what we want to do to make sure they feel equipped to move on to the next school.”
He used the example of grade 5 math scores. “Where they had an overall weakness was determining of quotients of a decimal to the power of 10.” They were 22 points below the mark on that, which represented the biggest gap. When he met with the interventionists, he asked them to identify those big gaps and focus on what to do to close them. While reteaching a whole lesson isn’t necessary, “We need to give targeted instruction through intervention that supports the weaknesses,” he said. With that big of a spread, it needs to be pushed down to what’s considered a Tier 2 intervention because so many students weren’t getting it. But with a smaller spread of 5-8 points, Cutler describes giving specific, targeted intervention to support students on weaker aspects of the work.

Marano reminded the Committee to look at the range of scores that make up the category of “partially meeting expectations,” which could be a wide range. If students were closer to meeting expectations, it shouldn’t require revamping the entire curriculum and targeting those areas intensely. They just have to make some tweaks, and those are the things interventionists will work on.

“I don’t want you to come away from this thinking that we have huge pockets of deficits all across the district,” Marano said, “because that’s not the case. There’s a range of scores we need to look at, and it takes some time to dig deeper into that data and figure out what standards we need to look at.”

Next steps include the following:
  • Continue to provide building-wide weekly common planning time focused on student academic progress and current performance, 
  • Strategies and techniques within the classroom,
  • Continue to provide weekly intervention classes in ELA and math for identified students, in addition to enrichment opportunities,
  • Interventionists continue to provide coaching, modeling, resources, and recommendations to classroom teachers in ELA and math,
  • Continue curriculum review to ensure vertical alignment,
  • Continue to seek opportunities for academic mentorship and modeling with Bellingham High School students.

• Keough Memorial Academy 

Acting Principal Rachel Lawrence told the Committee that out of seven students who took the math MCAS in spring of 2019 only 3 met expectations, 3 failed and needed to retake the test, and one student needed an EPP plan. Math strengths include probability, expressing geometric qualities and equations, and geometric measurements and dimension. Areas for growth included reasoning with equations and inequities, congruence, similarity, right triangles, and trigonometry, and interpreting categorical and interpretive data.

In ELA, out of seven students, six met the competency requirement while one needed an EPP. The main area of weakness was essay writing. “They had a lot of difficulty producing the level of essay composition and components that were required,” she explained. Eight students took the biology test, and six met requirements, while 2 need to retake. Strengths included ecology, evolution and biodiversity; and areas for growth included chemistry for life. 
Next steps include the following:
  • Providing building-wide weekly common planning time focused on student academic progress and current performance,
  • Providing building-wide weekly consultation time with therapeutic team and classroom teachers focused on the integration of SEL and PBIS strategies and techniques within the classroom,
  • Providing MCAS tutoring for identified students,
  • Providing weekly intervention classes in ELA, math, science, and social studies for identified students,
  • Interventionists to provide coaching, modeling, resources, and recommendations to classroom teachers.

• Bellingham High School

Principal Megan Lafayette presented BHS’s results, beginning with their school-wide goal as follows: “BHS has identified areas of need for students as the completion of multi-step problems and perseverance in writing and problem solving. Teachers have worked together to create student learning goals to address this need.”

She went on to explain: “We realized by looking at MCAS scores last year and talking with teachers in the classroom that one of the things that high school students are struggling with in all disciplines is completing multi-step problems, and working with perseverance through complex writing assignments.” Teachers this year are working with students within their content areas, using multi-step math problems and working through writing prompts with perseverance as examples.

“That’s something that will help our MCAS scores, but will also help our students become better critical thinkers,” she said. She also pointed to their Literacy team, MCAS tutoring, and WIN block (designated period of the academic day that focuses on individualized areas of concern for students performing below grade level), as strengths.

When it comes to MCAS results, “My goal is to get our district numbers as close to those state numbers as possible,” Lafayette said. The 8th grade struggled with writing on the ELA test, and Lafayette anticipates working with students on how to work with more detail and sophistication. Because it’s a new test, 10th grade ELA doesn’t have the three-year comparison but has only last year’s data, showing 8% exceeding and 49% meeting expectations. Now that they’ve seen the test and can do the item analysis with the new test questions, she’s confident those numbers will improve next year.

In reviewing 8th grade math scores, she said, “It was nice to see from 2018 to 2019, the ‘not meeting expectation’ was down to 7%.” Departments will be working during the next early-release days to do item analysis of specific MCAS data and individual questions, looking to see what specific areas they need to look at in the curriculum.

Tenth-grade math was an area of concern, because 15% of the students didn’t meet expectations. While those students are working with tutors and will be retaking the test the following week, Lafayette is working with the math department to figure out which types of problems students struggled with. “That’s the most urgent work for us at the high school,” she said.

In eighth-grade science and technology, 51% met expectation and 4% exceeded, and Lafayette attributes those higher-than-average numbers to the biology team, who work well together. They are working on identifying the 6% of students failing 10th-grade biology. 
Next steps include the following:
  • Provide curriculum time for all teachers to continue work on curriculum documents that are tied to state standards,
  • ILT members as instructional coaches to support best practices,
  • Department Coordinators to facilitate item analysis of MCAS data,
  • Continue curriculum review to ensure vertical alignment,
  • BHS school-wide student learning goal centered on student writing and problem solving, 
  • Year 2 of the math curriculum review process. 
“We are busy at the high school,” she finished, “but we know what we need to do.”
Marano finished with some quick comments. “This was a lot of information, and we didn’t even dive into item analysis and which standards and strands we need to look at because that’s overwhelming,” he said. “I believe in the work our teachers and principals are doing right now. They’re really diving into that data, looking at the areas they need to work on, making those plans, as you could see, and that will be reflected in their school improvement plans when we come back in November.” He also reminded the Committee that this data reflects one exam, which is incredibly important but shouldn’t solely define who we are as a district.
Chairman Mike Reed closed the meeting by thanking Marano and the team for all their hard work. They will come back to address some of the gaps at future meetings, and school improvement plans are scheduled to be presented at the next November School Committee meeting.
Information about Bellingham schools, including School Committee meeting times, can be found on the website at, and results of MCAS by district can be found on the state website at




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