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New study identifies strategies to improve MCAS scores of urban special education students

With the MCAS success gap between different segments of the Massachusetts student population a growing concern among educators and policy maker, a study released today by the UMass Donahue Institute and the Massachusetts Office of Educational Quality and Accountability has identified practices common to schools with relatively high achievement among special education students.

This is the first major study to use newly available comprehensive student-level data to evaluate the MCAS achievement of students with special needs and comes as the state Supreme Judicial Court is preparing to issue decisions that could dramatically affect the way the state funds schools.

“A key challenge of the current phase of education reform in Massachusetts is to identify and verify the efforts of school districts that are promoting higher levels of student achievement,” said Dr. Joseph Rappa, Director of the Massachusetts Office of Educational Quality and Accountability. “This study has begun to do that. The research determined which urban systems can serve as role models in educating children with special needs. Our challenge now is to help other districts implement these effective practices and policies.”

The study, which focused on schools in Chelsea, Everett, Framingham, Boston and Pittsfield, compared the MCAS performance of systems that are demographically comparable. Rather than comparing district scores to the state average, systems were evaluated based on their performance against demographic peers.

The research team identified specific practices that were consistently identified by educators as central to the success of these districts and schools. These include:

  • A pervasive emphasis on curriculum alignment with the Massachusetts frameworks;
  • Effective systems to support this curriculum alignment;
  • Emphasis on inclusion and access to the curriculum;
  • Culture and practices that support high standards and student achievement;
  • A well-disciplined academic and social environment;
  • Use of student assessment data to inform decision-making;
  • Unified practice supported by targeted professional development;
  • Access to resources to support key initiatives;
  • Effective staff recruitment, retention, and deployment;
  • Flexible leaders and staff who work effectively in a dynamic environment and;
  • Effective leadership.

After identifying systems and schools that out-performed their peers, the researchers conducted field research in five systems (Chelsea, Everett, Framingham, Boston, and Pittsfield) and 10 schools to identify specific practices and policies that educators in those district credit with boosting SPED student achievement.

This first phase of research, which included a quantitative analysis of 2002 and 2003 student-level MCAS and student profile data, identified urban districts with promising English Language Arts (ELA) and Math achievement among students with special needs as compared to peers. Ultimately, three school districts were selected for multi-school site visits (Chelsea – the Berkowitz and Hooks elementary schools and the Williams Middle School; Everett – Whittier and Lafayette K-8 schools; and Framingham – Wilson and McCarthy elementary schools and the Walsh Middle School), and two were selected for single school site visits (the Mary Lyon School in Boston and Morningside Elementary in Pittsfield).

The study, entitled, "A Study of MCAS Achievement and Promising Practices in Urban Special Education," is significant in several ways, according to the research team.

Project Manager Steven Ellis of the UMass Donahue Institute, said: “While there is no single blueprint for advancing the achievement of students with special needs in urban areas, there was a remarkable consistency to the practices and policies cited by the educators we interviewed. We feel the findings are particularly interesting because the study focused upon districts and schools confronted with substantial challenges that are endemic to urban areas, and adjusted for those differences in the research process. We hope that school districts looking to improve the performance of their students with special needs will find the report to be helpful.”

“This report is especially timely as educators and legislators grapple with how to close the achievement gap between different student populations, “said UMass Donahue Institute Lead Quantitative Researcher Dr. Robert Gaudet, whose research on demography and achievement was used in the work. “Soon the Supreme Judicial Court will likely order some remedies to fix the problems identified in the recent Hancock v. Driscoll education reform case hearings. One of the challenges identified in Hancock was to boost the performance of our special education students. This report identifies specific ways some systems are improving the education of their special needs students.”

This study, launched at the direction of the Massachusetts Legislature, is ongoing.


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