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MCPS BOE receives update on student academic performance, resource equity

This article originally appeared on The Sentinel.

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) reviewed recent data on student academic performance and a study about the resources its schools use to understand where they can make improvements in the quality of education the school system can provide.

MCPS Area Associate Superintendent Janet Wilson of the Office of Shared Accountability and Area Associate Superintendent Cheryl Dyson of the Office of School Support and Improvement gave updates to the Montgomery County Board of Education during its Sept. 23 meeting to gauge how the students in its subgroups are doing. These measures include readiness for college and careers and for the next school grade, framed by the title “Evidence of Learning.”

Wilson said the percentage of fifth graders who were proficient in two of three literacy measures, for which MCPS assessed all students, decreased by 2.5% for students overall, as well as for all student subgroups in fifth grade, between spring 2018 and spring 2019. The most-severe drops in proficiency was for African American students (6.3%) and for African American students who receive free or reduced-price meals, by 7.3%.

Wilson said that in English/language arts, the percentage of students who were deemed proficient dropped in some age groups from spring 2018 to spring 2019. Part of the reason for the drop, she speculated, was that MCPS started emphasizing on-grade-level reading texts.

The importance of the new data, according to MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith, was to indicate whether the school system is making adequate strides in trying to improve the quality of education for all students in the county.

MCPS staff and their supportive teams are working toward the goal that one day, student access to educational materials, expert teachers and learning environment will be equitable. A journey toward that end is challenging and complicated, Smith said during the meeting.

MCPS can also use data, such as student performance on county and state tests, to formulate plans to address gaps in student academic achievement. But Smith offered a word of caution about the use of performance data to people attending the meeting.

“And information is not perfect, it has flaws, and oftentimes, we have to go back (to it),” Smith said. “And (in) some of what you’re going to see tonight, we’re going to say, we continued to test and look, and we changed this because it was not a good indicator; it was not a good measure for students.”

The third measure mentioned by Wilson, equitable access to resources, is the subject of a study MCPS paid an outside firm to conduct. Wilson said this is a response to the question, “What are we going to do about it (if students are not learning enough)?” During the meeting, Education Resource Strategies (ERS) partner Jonathan Travers presented the project to the board about the project, also known as the Resource Study – his third of three presentations to them.

Travers said during the meeting that non-proficient students are less likely to have proficient peers and classmates than proficient ones, and the likelihood continues to increase as they progress through school. In addition, “high-need” schools tend to have principals with fewer years of experience.

MCPS previously heard from Travers, citing the ERS study, that schools with larger numbers of “high-need” students tend to have less-experienced teachers, measured by three or fewer years of teaching experience. The county spends more money on “high-need” students than on low-need students, but the students are not doing better with the additional funding.

Smith said during a previous meeting this year that the reason MCPS paid for the ERS study was that this year or next, the annual state “report cards” on county school system achievement and school performance will include information about the amount of money MCPS spends per student in its various locations.

At present, data discussed by MCPS indicates a problem, Smith said.

“What we do know is that (…) no matter how we take the assessment results, access to programs, the college and career readiness indicators, no matter what set of indicators that we take, that we see disparities in those,” said Smith. “And that’s what we have to address as a community, and we have to continue to change.”

MCPS staff then presented updates on how the school system is doing in terms of equity and academic performance. Wilson gave a recap of three projects MCPS has been developing during the past few years concerning evidence of learning, the equity accountability model and equitable access to resources. She said the projects, though not new to the board, represent a new way of framing information and planning.

“I wanted to use this (structure) tonight, because I think that it’s very important that we think about the questions utilizing this framing,” Wilson said at the meeting.

The second item Wilson listed – what MCPS calls the equity accountability model – is a framework staff have been rolling out with the goal of improving equity, so that students’ likelihood of success is not predetermined by a characteristic like race, or a circumstance such as family income level. The model is a new way of looking at data, Wilson said.

“The equity accountability model will help us answer the ‘if not, why not?’ and ‘how do we know?’ because of the way it frames the data and tells us at a system level, at a school level, and a classroom level, quite frankly, how all of our students are doing, and, in particular, our focus group students,” Wilson said.

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