Despite being one of the top states in terms of education, Massachusetts still has many communities with schools in serious need of improvement. Below is MCAS related data from six of the lowest performing communities in the state. Percentages are the combined 'needs improvement' and 'fail' rates for each section on the 2010 MCAS.
There are many factors contributing the low scores of these communities. The most significant common denominator is the poverty rate. In these communities, the proportion of children (under 18) living under the poverty line ranges from 19.4% to 41.7%. As a direct result, the low income populations in the schools systems is as much as 87.3%. Additional factors include large English language learner (ELL) and limited English proficiency populations. Seventy-seven percent of Lawrence's school population, for example, is ELL. Poverty and language barriers are serious challenges that the listed communities must face in attempting to meet the standards set by No Child Left Behind.
While communities like Holyoke and Chelsea struggle, there are many Massachusetts cities whose school systems are excelling in terms of standardized testing. Below are the combined 'needs improvement' and 'fail' rates on the 2010 MCAS from five of the highest performing communities in Massachusetts.
The most evident difference between the high and the low performing communities is socioeconomic status. The poverty rate for people under 18 in these communities is under 4 percent as the median income for families is between $135,000 to $200,000. Also, the ELL population for the high performing communities is under 9 percent and is as low as 2.4 percent in Sudbury.
Many have considered the role of SES and language barriers in academic success; these factors have, at times, dominated discussions around education reform. What has not been discussed as a potential solution to low academic achievement is increasing overall school engagement, but more importantly increasing school attendance. There is a camp who does not believe that factors such SES do not have bearing on teachers' ability to effectively teach. What about school absence?
Good versus bad teachers aside, if students do not actually attend school it does not matter how "effective" their teacher is. Make up work can be given, but students who miss excessive days or hours of schooling lose out on the instruction time that goes with each lesson. As a result, certain gaps in knowledge would lead to failed tests and poor grades and standardized test scores. A significant difference between schools that do well and schools that do not is the average number of days that their students miss. Below is a comparison of average schools absences between the high and low performing communities.
|City||Avg. Absences||City||Avg. Absences|
From this we see that students in the lower performing communities miss more days of school on average than students in high performing communities. If we were to look only at high school, the data would be much worse. Students at Holyoke High School for instance tend to miss almost 20 days of school per year while students at Wellesley High miss seven.
A high priority for school systems, parents and students should be finding a way to decrease the number of school days missed. Potential ways to do this could include providing mental and physical health services within the school, increasing parental involvement, and enforcing stricter penalties for missing excessive class time. Teachers and principals cannot control whether a student comes to school, so schools systems could look to the city and state for assistance with their school attendance policies. The low academic achievement of students in low income communities is complex but there are aspects of the issue that can be specifically targeted. While missing school due to illness is understandable, schools and parents should seek to decrease the number of unnecessary school absences to ensure that students receive as much instructional time possible. This is essential to increasing academic success.
**All data take from www.doe.mass.edu