LENOX — The state's latest annual report card on school performance gives Morris Elementary School a Level 1 ranking — what amounts to an "A" for the third straight year.
The accountability report by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education also commended Morris among 45 schools statewide and three in Berkshire County — including Lanesborough Elementary and Muddy Brook Elementary in Great Barrington — for progress in narrowing achievement gaps.
But Lenox Memorial Middle and High School has been downgraded to Level 2, equivalent to a "B," primarily because of a drop-off in middle school math MCAS scores. Last year, LMMHS and Morris were both rated at the topmost level.
As a result, the overall Lenox district also declined to Level 2. Only 19 percent of school districts statewide achieved a Level 1 rank this year, while 62 percent were rated at Level 2.
"The state defines the district level as that of the lowest-performing school," Superintendent Timothy Lee said.
The rankings are based primarily on MCAS scores and student participation in the tests, though other factors are taken into account.
"I don't know that I would call it a setback or disappointment, personally," Lee said. "I think what we see in terms of performance in certain areas is good feedback. It's helpful for us to know the areas we could be doing better in."
Even at Level 2, the middle and high school performed better than 85 percent of other schools in the same category as well as K-12 schools statewide, Lee said.
"This tells us that we're doing a good job, generally speaking, meeting the public mandate and providing students with the instruction that they need to be successful," Lee added.
Morris "had a great year [and] made some nice progress on narrowing achievement gaps between 'high-needs' and 'non-high needs' students," he said. Performance in math was especially solid schoolwide, particularly for third-graders, he said.
"High needs" is defined by the state based on sub-groups including special education, low-income and English Language Learners, among others. Each sub-group is identified and measured separately, Lee said. The overall category includes all the sub-groups.
The difference between total student performance and the high-needs group narrowed significantly at the elementary school as well as at Lenox Memorial. The state's report showed that at both schools, the high-needs students performed even better than the entire student population.
"That's pretty impressive," Lee said. "It takes time to put measures, steps and initiatives in place and see the real benefit from them. You never see them in the first year, and almost never in the second."
Before he was appointed superintendent in mid-2014, Lee had been principal at Morris for six years.
As a Level 1 school, Morris did better than 83 percent of the schools statewide, the state report showed.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education rates schools by level, with the top-ranked Level 1 defined as narrowing proficiency gaps in core subjects by achieving a 75 percent or higher on a cumulative performance index, with a maximum of 100. Level 4 is applied to the lowest-achieving, least-improving schools, while Level 5 is reserved for those that are chronically under-performing.
Lenox Memorial Middle and High fell to a Level 2 designation because it scored a 73 percent on the performance index target, primarily because student improvement in middle school math was particularly low, Lee said, resulting in sub-par MCAS scores.
Despite a 100 percent index score for 10th grade English Language Arts and strong math scores for the high-school sophomores, "that middle school performance in mathematics was a factor in causing us not to reach those gap-narrowing targets," he said.
As a result, Lenox Memorial Principal Michael Knybel and the middle school math department are working on a revised, single-approach curriculum for 6th through 8th grades in time for the 2016-17 school year, Lee stated.
There were two high-needs students at Lenox Memorial who did not take the MCAS test during the last school year, apparently for medical reasons. That dropped the participation rate to 93 percent.
"The state tells us you cannot be at Level 1 if you have a participation rate below 95 percent either for the school overall or for a subgroup," said Lee. "In a small school like this with a small population, the impact of two kids not finishing the entire sequence of testing, with participation being a factor, it becomes much more noticeable than if we were a school of 1,500 students."
A third factor behind the middle and high school decline to Level 2 was a student who transferred out of Lenox Memorial to another school in the state and then dropped out. The state held that against Lenox, an outcome that Lee continues to question.
The school district's new strategic plan included a Level 1 districtwide ranking as an immediate goal.
"We're not going to make it this year as a district," Lee acknowledged. "Our strong performance in several areas is an indicator of the overall effectiveness of our schools. The less-than-strong data must be evaluated and used to inform program improvement."
School ratings in brief ...
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's recently released its 2015 school and district accountability report. Under the accountability system, the state uses statewide test scores over time, student growth percentiles and other factors to classify schools into Levels 1-5 as follows:
Level 1: Meeting gap-narrowing goals.
Level 2: Not meeting gap-narrowing goals (or MCAS participation of less than 95 percent).
Level 3: Among lowest performing 20 percent of schools or subgroups (or MCAS participation of less than 90 percent or persistently low graduation rates).
Level 4: Among lowest achieving and least improving schools.
Level 5: Chronically under-performing schools.
Statewide, 464 out of 1,610 schools and 71 out of 383 districts are classified as Level 1 for meeting their performance benchmarks, including gap-narrowing goals.