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Third-grade MCAS scores slip slightly

Boston Globe 6/11/2003

By Michele Kurtz, Globe Staff

The percentage of third-graders who earned a ''proficient'' score on this spring's MCAS reading exam dropped slightly from last year, a decline state officials attributed, in part, to more students with limited English taking the test.

About 63 percent of the state's third-graders rated ''proficient'' -- the top tier in a three-tier scoring system -- a drop from 67 percent in 2002, according to preliminary results released yesterday.

Still, 94 percent of students passed the test, the same as last year.

''Overall, the numbers went slightly down in proficiency, but we're not discouraged because, at the same time, we were able to maintain the percentage of kids who passed the test, which is a big part of the battle,'' said Heidi B. Perlman, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

State officials characterize the nearly two-thirds of all students who scored in the proficient range as ''strong readers.'' The higher standard of proficiency is increasingly important. Under the new federal No Child Left Behind Act, states are expected to aim for having every child proficient in math and English by 2014.

State officials said a much larger number of students with limited English who took the test -- many of them with only a year or two of English instruction before facing the exam -- contributed to the decline in the percentage of students who scored proficient. But that doesn't explain all of the trend: Regular education students scoring at the proficient level also slipped from 74 percent to 71 percent.

For the first time last spring, nearly all students who speak English as a second language were required to take MCAS under the No Child Left Behind Act, which seeks to hold schools and states accountable for the performance of all students. Previously, only students who had been in the country for three years had to take MCAS, and for third-graders, it was anyone who had been in the country since first grade.

This year, only non-native English speakers who arrived in the United States after Oct. 1, 2002, were exempted from the spring test.

The change meant that more than 91 percent of limited-English speakers in third grade took MCAS this spring, compared with less than 60 percent the previous year. Passing rates among those students dropped from 76 percent to 70 percent, and those scoring at the proficient level fell from 27 percent to 23 percent.

At the Richard J. Murphy School in Dorchester, about a quarter of the 900 students speak either Haitian or Vietnamese as their native language. Teachers for years have analyzed scores from MCAS and other assessments to tailor instruction for such students, said Principal Mary Russo said. Many participate in afterschool and summer programs designed to give them extra time in English and math, she said.

Russo acknowledged that students who have spent less time in this country face a greater challenge on MCAS, but she said ''dogged persistence'' often works.

''We know that they can learn to standards at a more accelerated pace than we think,'' she said.

This story ran on page B2 of the Boston Globe on 6/11/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.