What Level 3 schools need from the state

The right approach could help struggling schools gain traction

THIS MONTH, families across Massachusetts got their children’s MCAS 2.0 scores in their mailboxes. According to Secretary of Education James Peyser this new, more difficult test was necessary because nearly one third of Massachusetts students need remedial classes once they enter college.

In our state, all public schools are rated and assigned a level based on how they perform on the statewide test. The rankings range from Level 1 for the top-performing schools and Levels 2 and 3 for mid and low range schools to Level 4 “turnaround” schools, which require district and state intervention, and, finally, Level 5, which triggers a state takeover due to chronic low performance. This year, all schools and districts are “held harmless” and will not see their accountability levels change because of the test results. But as schools adapt and adjust to this new test and its higher standards, I can not help but wonder about its impact on Level 3 schools.

Level 3 refers to those schools that fall in the lowest performing 20 percent of Massachusetts schools. I teach in a Level 3 school in Worcester.  Our school is designated as high-needs; over 70 percent of our students are English language learners, nearly 35 percent are at levels 1 and 2 for English language acquisition, and nearly 70 percent of our students are considered economically challenged. In the past four years, my students have taken MCAS, PARCC, and MCAS 2.0 in English, where they’re held to the same standards as native English speakers.

For students like Alejandra, who has lived in this country for less than two years, taking MCAS 2.0 last spring has led to tears of frustration and discouragement. What impact will this new test have on students like her and on our community? Are we going to end up as a Level 4 turnaround school, a designation that requires dramatic restructuring of our school or other changes?

As a teacher, I believe we can do more to provide Level 3 schools with the tools we need to improve outcomes for our students. Massachusetts should consider the following:

Ask Level 3 schools what they need

Every year, Level 3 schools are expected to clearly stipulate their plan for improvement. Our school’s instructional leadership team takes this very seriously. We develop the school’s accountability plan, spend hours combing over our data, and then meet with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s administrators to explain how we plan to make improvements. What is missing is this question from DESE: “What do you need and how can we help you achieve these goals?” If we can have an honest conversation about the resources my school needs, we can work more collaboratively to improve student outcomes.

Differentiate staffing to meet the specific needs of the school

As teachers, we know that each student has different needs and that we must differentiate how we teach if each student is to succeed. The same holds true for individual schools. As districts decide how to fund their schools, they should consider what makes each school unique. In my school, we must provide targeted, tiered instruction to build understanding of English and the academic vocabulary. We must teach learning concepts across all curricular areas and have many more opportunities for small group instruction. And this is just the beginning. When it comes to teaching information that will be included on a test like MCAS 2.0, we face complex challenges. Differentiated, targeted funding and staffing may be the only hope for a school like mine to not become Level 4.

Implement successful Level 4 strategies in Level 3 schools

As the state moves forward with more rigorous testing and higher expectations for all students, schools like mine face tough challenges and tough decisions. We can start to tackle these by implementing the successful interventions strategies used with Level 4 schools. Based on each school’s data, we should decide what the students’ greatest needs are and then ensure that districts and the state reallocate funds and staffing as needed to best address these needs. We must differentiate for Level 3 schools the same way that we differentiate for the Level 4 schools in our state.

Meet the Author

Mary-Margaret Mara

Preschool Teacher, Chandler Magnet School
Level 3 schools need to be heard more than ever. What we want is authentic conversation, compromise, and differentiation for all schools across districts and the state. Let’s take what we have learned from our successful turnaround schools and build upon that. We know what works. The time has come to invest in our Level 3 schools and to give them what they need to succeed.

Mary-Margaret Mara is a preschool teacher in an inclusion classroom at Chandler Magnet School in Worcester and a Teach Plus Commonwealth Senior Teaching Policy Fellow. She was the Worcester Public Schools Teacher of the Year in 2014 and a finalist for Massachusetts Teacher of the Year in 2017.