PITTSFIELD -- The state's complex scoring system to gauge academic progress contains a wealth of data valuable for designing programs and targeting resources, Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless told the School Committee this week.
However, he also acknowledged that it's possible "but extremely difficult" for a district to elevate its ranking based on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System or other standardized test scores.
Scores and rankings for the Pittsfield system -- and for almost all districts around the state and nation -- have remained relatively stable over the years, despite federal and state initiatives, mandates and funding, McCandless said.
The superintendent expanded on his remarks in an interview on Friday, saying the annual state progress rankings, which two years ago replaced federal guidelines under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, are an improvement. He said now the goal is not so much to have every student pass standardized tests but to close the "achievement gap" between upper-middle class students and others.
Pittsfield schools "are very good at moving kids forward," in terms of annual academic progress, McCandless said, but the state ranking system includes a goal of eliminating the achievement gap between all students by 2017 -- and it includes annual progress goals for each district. In many cases, there has been improvement, he said, but not enough to meet the state's annual goal and improve the district ranking among all schools.
As for the No Child Left Behind goal of having 100 percent of students post a proficient score by 2014, he said the state's new goal may be reaching for a star while realistically hoping for significant improvement.
Since 2000, Massachusetts has made progress in lowering the gap between the highest- and lowest-performing students, McCandless said, and that is true in Pittsfield as well. This, he said, is a reflection of the funding that has been diverted toward those students as they became a mandated priority.
Pittsfield schools, for instance, are "very good at tiered interventions," he said, in which students are constantly assessed to ensure they understand current lessons. The teacher, aides and reading, math or other specialists meet with small groups of students more or less often, based on the level of attention they need.
The successes city schools have had in reducing gaps among different groups and in schools facing challenges -- like a high percentage of low-income students -- illustrate the effect additional funding and targeted resources can have, McCandless said.
"If I had Bill Gates' money, I would establish free preschool for all students," he said, citing one way districts have realized significant improvement. "And the money spent on preschool would be saved -- or more than saved -- on remediation and on alternative education [programs]."
In general, he said, greater parental, community and state and federal efforts to reduce poverty would have a positive effect in the schools -- as well as cost more money.
"Instead, Head Start and other programs are being cut," he said.
McCandless said he will discuss the Framework for District Accountability and Assistance test scores and rankings at future School Committee meetings to familiarize board members and the public with the data, and about the challenges Pittsfield schools face and opportunities the detailed information create.
In the state rankings, each school is classified as Level 1 through 5. Districts are ranked at the level of their lowest-performing school.
Pittsfield is ranked overall at Level 3, McCandless said, with Conte, Crosby, Pittsfield High and Taconic High ranked at Level 3. Allengate, Egremont, Morningside, Williams and Herberg schools are Level 2, and Capeless, Reid and Stearns schools are Level 1.
A Level 1 district essentially is meeting the state progress goals, prompting a minimum amount of state assistance and accountability action; Level 2 requires more review of procedures and possible state or district assistance for targeted groups; Level 3 provides for more reviews and analysis of school programs and provides for more assistance; and a Level 4 rank prompts a measure of state Department of Education control of district operations.
There are no Level 5 schools, which would be those taken over and operated by the state.
Of 1,614 individual schools in the state rankings, 500 are ranked Level 1 this year, 776 are Level 2, 300 are Level 3 and 38 are level 4, McCandless said. The rankings are based on MCAS testing in the spring, but Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester can also assign borderline schools higher or lower.
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Key dates ...
n Friday, Oct. 18 is the deadline for new individuals wishing to register for GED testing, including those who need special accommodations.
n Saturday, Dec. 14 is the last date for all GED testing and re-tests under the current system.
n The new system is expected to launch in January 2014.