Sunday, May 23, 2010

Making Senior Year More Meaningful

When the US Department of Education's National Commission on the High School Senior Year delivered a comprehensive report entitled "Raising Our Sights" in 2001, one of the key recommendations was for schools to "require performance-based assessments such as portfolios for seniors to showcase their best accumulated work... and senior projects where students may demonstrate their capabilities for research, creative thinking, rigorous analysis, and clear written and oral communication." It is with this vision that thousands of high schools nationwide have implemented a senior project program. We too have begun the journey at MHS.

Thirty-eight members of the class of 2010 recently completed this year-long independent project, which culminated on May 14 with oral presentations on their research to panels of faculty members, parents, and community members. During their presentations, each student gave an overview of their study area and also talked about their specific research in the field. Throughout the school year, each student had to identify a mentor who is an expert in their chosen field of study, conduct at least 15 hours of fieldwork, reflect in writing upon their experiences, and submit a research paper on the topics. All experiences are also documented by the students through the use of an online electronic portfolio where artifacts of their learning are uploaded and assessed.

The student topics were diverse and interesting. From topics ranging from the feasibility of starting a ski and snowboard apparel business in light of an economic recession to the influence of intellectual property on the medical field, all projects had one thing in common: they were selected by the students based upon what they have a passion for learning.

Many thanks to MHS Senior Project coordinators Bill Deasy and Ben Caisse for their hard work and facilitation throughout the year. Great work!


Above: Chaelyn Saunders presents on the physics of dance and her work with choreography.

Below: Greg O'Brien presents on his work on creating and patenting an experimental medical device; Ali Dorval presents on her topic of increasing AIDS awareness among teenagers through conducting a charity community event.

Monday, May 17, 2010

MCAS/AYP "Readjustment" In Store?

Over the past decade, the biggest driver of curriculum, instruction, and assessment in American public education has been the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. For better or worse, the act has led to the creation of very complex state assessment and accountability systems that measure how well students are meeting state standards in reading, writing, and mathematics. Most states, like Massachusetts, have gone the route of high-stakes testing, where passing a standardized test like the MCAS is necessary for grade promotion or graduation from high school.

A key element of the act was establishing AYP, or the adequate yearly progress each school must demonstrate by increasing the number of students that score proficient on tests like the MCAS. Baseline proficiency levels were established in 2002 with the target of 100% proficiency by the year 2014. Keep in mind that for a school to attain AYP, improvements in both the aggregate and various student subpopulations (e.g., low income, special education, English language learners, various racial groups, etc.) must show improvement. As we have moved closer to 2014, more and more schools across the Commonwealth (and the nation) have failed to achieve AYP, most often because there is an achievement gap among the subpopulation groups and the aggregate. In fact, based upon the 2009 MCAS results, over half of the state's schools have been identified as failing or in need of improvement due to their repeated failure to attain AYP.

Thus, it is interesting news that the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is considering a new proposal where the 100% proficiency goal will be readjusted to a target of 85% of students scoring proficient or advanced on all grades' MCAS tests by the year 2020. Proponents say that this new target is simply more realistic than the 100% mark and will give educators more time to design curriculum and instruction to address persistent achievement gaps, particularly for those students who are English language learners and have disabilities. It will also give more time to strengthen elementary literacy programs throughout the state. Because this proposal is contrary to the mandates of NCLB, the state cannot act on it until Congress acts on the Reauthorization of NCLB. It is believed that this may occur sometime later this year.

Where does this leave us in the world of MHS? We have already achieved this new target, at least in the aggregate (2009 MCAS results: 94% proficient/advanced in ELA, 89% proficient/advanced in math). Below are some slides from a presentation that I gave to the MHS School Council last fall, showing exactly how MHS was doing relative to the AYP targets. The system contains somewhat of a complicated metric, known as the Composite Performance Index or CPI. This CPI score is what determines a school's AYP is:

If you look through the above slides, the aggregate CPI for the 10th grade ELA and mathematics tests has been progressively increasing for the past seven years. So have the results for the two significant subpopulation groups, students with disabilities and limited income students. However, you will notice that the CPI scores are much closer to the state target than the aggregate results. If the results for these groups stay static or dip over the next year or two, MHS will not attain AYP and could be labeled as "in need of improvement."

To their credit, our teachers have aptly used the data from previous year's MCAS to make improvements to the ELA and math curriculums and their instructional strategies. When so many students are scoring proficient or higher-say in the 90-95% range- it is that much more challenging to move the last 5 to 10% of students to proficiency. The challenge here is to analyze and use the data at a micro-level. Who are the students who are struggling? What specific standards/content strands do they not understand? What type of interventions and instruction work best with these kids?

While I am not a fan of high-stakes testing and I passionately believe in the use of multiple measures to assess a student's learning, I do think that NCLB has forced us to think in these terms. And that's a good thing...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Life-Changing Trip

It's hard to believe that it's been nearly five years since the Gulf Coast was forever changed by the devastation that was Hurricane Katrina. For the past three years, a special group of students and teachers have been making the trek to the region, pitching in wherever they could to help the ongoing relief efforts. This year's trip certainly was a memorable one.

Led by MHS science teacher Debbie Fournier, the group of 15 students set up camp in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, a small, rural, coastal town about an hour and 15 minutes east of New Orleans. The group stayed at the Mission on the Bay Camp, a self-contained camp for relief workers run by the Lutheran Episcopal Services of Mississippi. The group was fortunate to have as a guide Mr. Chris Lagarde, special assistant to Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Mississippi). Mr. Lagarde is also a Bay St. Louis native and has spent considerable time working with high school and college students serving as relief workers.

The students worked hard... very hard, removing debris from homes on Main Street in Bay St. Louis. They also worked in preparing houses for painting, performing the arduous task of scraping the shingles (as pictured above). Many of the homes in this devastated region are still abandoned, as people cannot afford to rebuild or insure their existing properties. As chaperone Leslie Gildersleeve points out, "Most people don't realize that the majority of FEMA funds went into rebuilding roads, bridges, and other infrastructure. Many everyday people are so dependent on volunteers to help them recover and restore. As a result, so many of the residents were so appreciative, constantly thanking us."

Mr. Lagarde also connected the MHS group with the University of Mississippi, with a major project to restore the delicate ecosystem by replanting the dune grasses in Biloxi. To be sure, a time-consuming but important task:

The group also had a unique adventure in clearing debris from a house that had been literally blown into the middle of a swamp. Unbelievably, this house was only discovered in March!

As a result, the students cleared pieces of the house crossing a makeshift bridge made literally from planks and plywood that was scattered:
The students had the opportunity to take in New Orleans one day, enjoying such historical features such as the French Quarter. Led by Mr. Lagarde, they also witnessed the areas that still have not recovered, such as the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish. They also noted the many oil, sugar, and coffee refineries that still are not up to speed.

Both the students and adult chaperones were struck by how warm and genuine all of the residents were. The residents of the area were consistently friendly and grateful, demonstrating how much they value the work of the students. While the students gained this new service learning, they also gained something more. As junior Justin Deckert, one of the 15 students, states, "We all gained a new perspective- that our community is so much bigger than just Mansfield. The people there were just like us, only that they have critical needs."

Once again, a job well done!