Are school demographics a factor in MCAS scores?
COLUMN: CLIVE MCFARLANE
It has become an interesting pastime each year to compare the Worcester public schools' MCAS scores with those of other school districts, but perhaps a more informative gauge would be to compare the individual performances of schools within the district.
With few exceptions, for example, the city's top 10 performing elementary schools, those that have an average of 50 percent or better of all their students scoring at the proficient or advanced levels in English and math, generally have a majority white student population.
These top-performing schools also generally, relative to their underperforming counterparts, have fewer students whose first language is not English.
On the other hand, the 10 lowest-performing elementary schools in the city generally have Hispanic students making up 50 percent or more of their student population. Also English is not the first language for more than 50 percent of the student body in these low-performing schools.
There are a few outliers to this trend. Columbus Park and Jacob Hiatt Magnet School, for example, are both ranked among the top 10 performers in the city.
The city's highest-performing schools also seem to share lower truancy and special education enrollment rates relative to the lowest-performing schools. But here again, there are some outliers, including Columbus Park, whose 34.8 percent truancy rate and 26.4 percent special education enrollment are among the highest in the city.
While Worcester educators are aware of the struggles of heavily populated minority schools, the path forward is not an easy one.
Thanks to court rulings against basing enrollment on ethnicity and to significant cutbacks in magnet school funding, Worcester back in 2005 essentially abandoned its decades-long effort of voluntarily maintaining racial balance in its schools.
But even if that plan was still in place, it would perhaps be untenable today given the city's growing minority population. Over the last 28 years, for example, the city's minority student population has grown from 20.2 percent to more than 63 percent.
Educators such as Mary Jo Marion, executive director of the Latino Education Institute at Worcester State University, said part of the strategy moving forward is for the school administration and the city to develop and implement "Latino specific" remedies.
She speaks, for example, of dual language immersion programs that she said have proven effective in closing the achievement gap of English Language learners.
School Committee member Brian O'Connell believes that there are pockets of success that can become a platform for greater achievement throughout the system.
Columbus Park, for example, he said, is seeing long-term success and improvement because of a combination of factors, to include strong leadership and dedicated teachers who have the instinct and ability to work with their students, no matter their challenges.
"There is nothing unique at Columbus Park that cannot be replicated by other schools," he said.
But perhaps the most hopeful path toward easing the growing racial isolation while improving student performance would be to revitalize the system's magnet school programs, according to Tracey O'Connell Novick.
It is a suggestion worth embracing.
One of the few Worcester schools to maintain its magnet focus over the years - the Worcester Arts Magnet School - is not only the top-performing elementary school in the city, but one of the top-performing schools in the state.
Once a school with almost 90 percent minority enrollment, WAMS now has a majority white student population.
This latter change might raise some questions about the city's enrollment practices, but the success of WAMS surely makes the case that the city's changing demographics doesn't necessarily have to lead to severe racial isolation and low student performance in our inner-city schools.
NAME: MASSACHUSETTS COMPREHENSIVE ASSESSMENT SYSTEM
CUTLINE: Worcester MCAS scores