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“All groups performed higher than the state” average as a whole.
      -- Roderick        MacNeal Jr.

UPDATED, Oct. 21: To the surprise of no one, Arlington results on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS test, were generally lower this year compared to those of two years ago, administrators told the Arlington School Committee on Thursday, Oct. 14.

The 2021 scores were compared to 2019 because those were the most recent ones available. Because of the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic, and with all instruction having been virtual in spring 2020, the tests were skipped last year.

Generally, math scores slipped more than English-language scores.

Testing was done in late spring in grades three through eight, and in 10th grade. Of the younger students, some 20 percent took the test remotely, while the 10th graders took the test on campus. 

Those speaking Thursday had different perspectives about the scores, their meanings and how the district should help kids to catch up.

“There’s not that much of a difference,” said Assistant Superintendent Roderick MacNeal Jr., noting that, even with lower numbers, “All groups performed higher than the state” average as a whole.

'Definitely an opportunity gap'

MacNeal’s slides and his accompanying media release in many cases show numbers broken out by such categories as high-needs vs. non-high-needs and also by ethnic groups. High-needs include English-language learners, former English-language learners, special-education students and/or those with Individual Education Plans, and those categorized as socially and/or economically disadvantaged. See the agenda documents for MCAS scores >> 

MacNeal noted that in many cases, “there is definitely an opportunity gap,” with scores of people of color often but not always tending to be lower than those of other groups.

He said the district’s plan to shore up education and to improve scores in future would be threefold: look at standards of the curriculum, identify different teaching strategies and keep students engaged.

Committee member Jane Morgan said she thought the generally higher scores from those who took the test online might not be representative, saying that children with good access to Zoom were probably from more affluent families. She also said that remote instruction is not optimal for mathematics, that there was probably not enough time for that instruction and that “[Covid] certainly hasn’t helped” students to progress in math.

“We know that everybody’s declining,” said committee member Paul Schlichtman. He said that the length of time that any given student has been in the district might have a notable bearing on performance, asking rhetorically, “How many kids who were with us [for most of their public-school education] have had a sharp drop? How do we compare to other districts?”

Homan's top-3 points

Asked by committee member Jeff Thielman for her “top three bullet points,” Superintendent Elizabeth Homan mentioned:

  • The persistent and sometimes growing gap between racial groups;
  • The need to ensure that all students have access to what public education has to offer, including the full range of extracurricular activities;
  • And the need to meet parental demand for “concrete mechanisms” for improving instruction.

Committee Chairman Bill Hayner said the three top goals should be to support social-emotional learning, acclimate students back to traditional structured learning and to provide a safe learning environment. “It’s a very complex problem,” he said.

Covid-19 rates down recently districtwide

Homan presented “fantastic news” that the district has enjoyed a reduction in positive virus cases in recent days. For the weeks ending on consecutive Fridays, the numbers were seven on Sept. 10, five on Sept. 17, 19 on Sept. 24, seven on Oct. 1, five on Oct. 8 and three as of Oct. 15.

She said Middlesex County had been considered “high spread” until last week and is now categorized as “substantial spread.” At Ottoson Middle School and Arlington High School, representing grades seven through 12, the vaccination rate of students and staff combined is just under 80 percent, she reported. According to Homan, the mask mandate could be dropped if those campuses were to achieve and maintain a vaccination rate of 85 percent or higher.

Committee votes on vaccination requirements

The committee unanimously adopted previously discussed written policies stating that all age-eligible students involved in extracurricular activities must be vaccinated against Covid-19 if there is a fully FDA-approved vaccination for their age group, unless they qualify for a medical disability or a sincerely held religious belief exemption. In that case, they must produce negative test results weekly. See Covid policies here >> 

Regardless of vaccination status, all those taking part in extracurricular activities must consent to and undergo weekly testing as required.

All adult observers, volunteers or visitors to the schools are to be held to the same standard as above. Arlington has for months already required this of on-campus employees. 

The committee also voted, 7-0, to adopt the latest versions of the handbooks for all grades K-12, and similarly to accept the consent agenda consisting of noncontroversial spending warrants.

Goals for Bishop, Thompson

The principals of two elementary schools – Bishop and Thompson – reported on their respective improvement plans from now through 2024. 

Bishop Principal Mark McAneny noted that Bishop’s boundaries are “smack dab in the middle of town” and run from the town’s northern edge to its south.

Core values there are Respect, Responsibility and Regard, he said, and Positive Behavioral Interventions are consistently tied to those core values; for example, children are told that walking, rather than running, in the hallways is a mark of respect.

He said that the pandemic has adversely affected particularly those with high needs and that “we must do better.” He advocates varied approaches to early reading, enhanced diversity and a “relentless focus on excellence.” He said the district has five literacy coaches but he is specifically asking for seven - - one dedicated to each of the seven elementary campuses.

See the Bishop agenda documents >> 

In East Arlington, Thompson School uses the symbology of the pineapple when working with its 508 students. “Stand tall, wear a crown and always be sweet on the inside” is the slogan for this school year, according to Principal Karen Donato. Thompson is “one of the most diverse schools in the district,” and everyone there “is thrilled to be back together,” she said.

"The pineapple is the universal symbol of welcome and hospitality, and when the school was being rebuilt, the architects incorporated it into the design," Donato told YourArlington earlier this week. "There is a large pillar with a pineapple on top outside the North Union Street entrance, and then there are pineapples embedded into the floor of the gym and the hallway outside of the library."

Thompson’s MCAS scores are higher on average than those of the state, but Donato acknowledged that over time, the scores seem to be generally declining for black and brown students. 

However, she noted, “The work that we do is measured in so much more than test scores.” Her top three goals are math discourse, in which students construct their own understanding of math concepts; school climate and culture; and equity and school culture.

Donato requested on behalf of Thompson: 

  • To continue participation in the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support Academy offered by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education;
  • Additional staff participation in the Initiative to Develop Equity and Inclusion in Students, better known as the IDEAS course; and
  • And ongoing professional development in Culturally Responsive Teaching and Discourse.

See the Thompson agenda documents >> 

Masters’ degrees are near-universal

Having at least one master’s degree characterizes virtually all of the newly hired teachers since July 1, according to Human Resources Director Robert Spiegel. Of the 66 new teachers and other members of Arlington Education Association Unit A, 21 have filled newly created positions, while the balance succeeds staffers who resigned or retired. 

“Our attempt is to always hire excellent educators,” he said.

Spiegel said he conducts exit interviews with those leaving and that their stated reasons are moving out of the area, disliking the commute to work, changing to a different capacity within the education field, seeking higher salaries, leaving to attend graduate school and personal reasons.

He said that the employees as a whole “are not reflective exactly to our student population,” meaning that the proportion of white employees exceeds the proportion of white students. He said he would work with Margaret Credle Thomas, the newly appointed director of diversity, equity and inclusion, on recruiting and retaining more minority educators.

See all agenda documents for the staffing update >> 

Watch the Oct. 14 meeting broadcast by ACMi:

Oct. 12, 2021: Who's new in town's public schools? See list of 150

This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Judith Pfeffer was published Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. It was updated Oct. 18, to add an ACMi video window, and Oct. 21, to add quote from Principal Donato.