BAR HARBOR — If schools want the freedom to be innovative and to offer students much more than just the basics, then they had better do a good job of teaching those basics, according to Julie Meltzer, director of curriculum, assessment and instruction for the Mount Desert Island Regional School System.
“We want project-based and experiential education, and we want arts-integrated classroom instruction, and we get good enough [academic performance] results that we’re allowed to do that,” Meltzer said.
“In this kind of high-stakes accountability [environment], if you don’t score well enough to be left alone, the state comes in and tries to tell you how to do things. I want the data to be good enough that it kind of tells everybody, ‘Back off.’”
Metzler said that is one reason standardized tests such as the SATs for high school juniors and twice-yearly NWEA tests for grades three through nine are valuable assessments of what students know and how much they are progressing.
Fortunately, she said, MDIRSS students overall continue to score higher on these tests than do most of their peers in the rest of the state. For example, last year, students in all five of the MDI and Trenton elementary schools scored well above the state average on NWEA reading and math tests.
Students in grades five and eight also take standardized science tests, and those students in the five MDI and Trenton schools scored higher than the statewide average.
The three outer island schools have so few students in each grade that test result comparisons are not statistically valid.
An important function of the standardized tests, Meltzer said, is not only to provide a point-in-time snapshot of how students are doing, but to show how much they are progressing from one year to the next. The NWEA considers a school to be “high performing” if at least 65 percent of its students meet their yearly growth target.
Across the MDIRSS schools, more than 70 percent of students in grades five, six and eight at all ability levels showed at least a year’s worth of growth in math last year. In reading, 70 percent of students in grades five through nine were deemed on track for college or career readiness.
Of the MDI High students who took the SAT last spring, 76 percent met or exceeded the standard for literacy compared to the statewide average of 59 percent.
In math, 35 percent of students statewide who took the SAT met or exceeded the standard. For MDI High students it was 44 percent. But that was down from 56 percent for the previous junior class.
Metzler said it’s that kind of change that prompts educators to see if more work is needed in a certain area.
“We have to always be looking at how we can tweak the programming, how we can provide the professional development and how we can help principals target resources based on what we’re seeing,” she said.
Having carefully analyzed all test data from all of the MDIRSS schools over the past year, Meltzer said, “The bottom line is, in general, our students are doing well, but we have work to do. There are some hidden issues in our data.”
She said those findings raise some important questions: “How do we serve kids who are struggling? We need to be getting better at providing targeted assistance.
“And are we moving kids to what’s considered on track for college and career ready?” she continued. “If we’re not moving kids up, but just having everybody stay where they are, then we’re not fulfilling the promise of public schools, which are supposed to be places where good can get better, where opportunities are open.”
Meltzer said all parents want their children to be as successful as possible regardless of their level of ability.
“We have a lot of students who are very strong academically, and parents have a right to know if we’re challenging those students [along with students who are not as strong], and if they are also growing,” she said.
For Meltzer, commonly accepted performance standards are the minimum that students should aim to achieve.
“We want kids to go way above and beyond, but we have to make sure they get the basics. If kids don’t read by the end of grade three, we are condemning them to a lot of struggle.”
Meltzer said MDI High School has a very good reputation for both the richness of its programs and the success of its students. She pointed out that, in addition to having consistently above-state-average test scores, the school is ranked as the ninth best of Maine’s 113 public high schools by the rating service NICHE.
“I get really upset when people have the perception that by going to the high school here, their kids are somehow not getting the same quality of education as if they were in southern Maine,” she said. “I can tell you we offer as strong a program in many, many, many ways and have the benefit of being smaller and more personalized.”
MDI High School currently has 541 students. NICHE’s top-rated public high school in the state is the Maine School of Science & Mathematics in Limestone, which has 139 students.
The other seven schools that are above MDI in the NICHE rankings, six of which are in the greater Portland area, have an average enrollment of 631. The largest is Scarborough High School with 998 students. The smallest is Casco Bay High School with 368.