NEW BEDFORD — One number stood out among the trove of performance data recently released by the state: nearly 70% of New Bedford High School students were “chronically absent” — meaning they missed at least 18 days, or 10% of school.
Though disruptions from the pandemic compromised attendance everywhere, the chronic absenteeism at New Bedford High and the district at large (47%) was in a different ballpark than absenteeism across the state (27%). Huge absenteeism rates may have also led to some of the lowest MCAS test scores anywhere in the state, experts say, or could even undermine that data’s usefulness altogether.
“A 70% absenteeism is not a normal functioning school,” said Stephen Sireci, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies testing and accountability.
Perhaps as a result, New Bedford’s test scores were low, including in eight schools that now rank in the bottom 10% of the state, according to DESE’s accountability percentile.
In addition to the high school, all three middle schools and several elementary schools fell within the bottom 10% — one metric the state uses to designate “underperforming” schools, or those at risk of a takeover.
At the high school, 10th graders achieved the lowest rate of passing scores anywhere in Massachusetts on their English (ELA) test. On the math test for 10th graders, 98% of statewide districts performed better.
These statewide results came out before the recently released “Nation’s Report Card,” or NAEP data, that made news as students’ test scores across the country slid dramatically, including the largest drops in math scores since the measurement’s inception. Massachusetts schools saw historic drops in math and reading scores in line with national trends.
Experts caution about how to interpret these data. Test scores are “not meaningless at the student level,” said Sireci, who said that parents can look at their own child’s score for a sense of individual progress. “But to attach that [accountability] to the school they weren’t attending starts to be unfair.”
Looking at data in smaller slices, Sireci said, could still illuminate useful trends.
For example, a correlation in New Bedford shows that when a higher percentage of students’ first language is not English, overall school performance is worse. This revelation comes shortly after the federal Department of Justice concluded an investigation into New Bedford schools for their lack of support to English learners, especially native speakers of K’iché.
Every school in New Bedford where more than 55% of the students’ first language is not English ranks in the bottom 10% of the state — those four schools are Jacobs, Hayden-McFadden, Renaissance, and Gomes. State accountability measurements have separate guidelines for English learners (which account for gains in their language proficiency) so schools can be compared more fairly.
In addition, the number of low-income students correlates with the high absenteeism rate, meaning that hardships in students’ personal lives may have been a determining factor in their ability to attend school last year.
“Yes, there’s an explanatory power of the pandemic, but it’s still a crisis to have 70% absenteeism,” said Walter Stroup, associate professor of education at UMass Dartmouth. While the high school’s absenteeism was an outlier within New Bedford, all 25 schools had nearly a third or more of their students chronically absent. Put another way: all 25 schools had more chronic absenteeism than the state average.
Saying that teachers are responsible for poor testing results in light of this absenteeism is “blaming folks for things they don’t have control over,” said Stroup. “A lot of the things that impact their effectiveness are outside their control.”
In New Bedford, chronic absenteeism has been higher than state averages before and during the pandemic. The difference is this year’s absenteeism numbers are more severe than in recent years.
“If [the district] can’t find a way to have kids come to school, then something like the pandemic will be even more disastrous,” said Stroup.
School attendance has been shown to be one of the most predictive factors for graduating high school. Staying at home during the pandemic was often necessary and not students’ choice, but almost surely affected their academic performance, experts said.
And while graduation and dropout rates were not included in the latest data release, these will be numbers to watch over the next few years. Graduating is getting harder (with increasing MCAS requirements needed) as student attendance and performance slides in the opposite direction. In New Bedford, the current average scores on MCAS tests will not be sufficient to reach the new graduation requirements.
Mayor Jon Mitchell, who chairs the School Committee as an ex-oficio member, has previously touted increasing graduation rates, including in his State of the City address earlier this year.
“We have moved heaven and earth to improve the performance of the school department,” Mitchell said. But some of the largest increases to the graduation rate came during a time when MCAS requirements were waived by the state. It is to be determined whether the impressive graduation numbers will hold.
In its own release, the school district did not directly compare passing rates to similar school districts or to statewide averages.
“Results were unfortunately like numerous other school systems across the state, as we saw a decline in the percent of students meeting or exceeding grade level expectations [in ELA],” said Superintendent Thomas Anderson in a pre-recorded message. For math scores, though passing rates lagged behind ELA, the superintendent noted small percentage point gains.
“The bottom line is there's still progress we have to make,” Anderson said in an interview with The Light.
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Disparities in test scores between white students and students of color did actually decrease at the high school, though this can mostly be attributed to sharper declines from pre-pandemic levels among white students.
In other demographic subgroups, English-learning and low-income 10th graders achieved similar outcomes or made modest gains compared to their 2019, pre-pandemic numbers. Their overall performance, however, remains near the bottom of the state.
The lower grades performed better, on average, than the high school in comparison to the state. For raw scores, math results in the lower grades are in the 13th percentile while for ELA they are in the ninth.
How did the charter schools do? What about Voc-Tech, Fairhaven and Dartmouth?
New Bedford's two charter networks outperformed the district while attendance numbers also dipped. However, chronic absenteeism at Alma Del Mar and Global Learning Charter Public School (GLCPS) was lower than every district school.
At Alma Del Mar, test scores were lower than state averages. And, though inconsistent across subject areas, Global Learning Charter Public School (GLCPS) bested the state average for their overall accountability percentile, at 55%, which was their “highest in school history,” according to Derek Michael, director of curriculum.
“As we look at the data, we understand that all kids in New Bedford are in need right now, no matter if they are at our school or a New Bedford public school or at Global Charter,” said Taylor DeLoach, the new executive director of Alma Del Mar. She said she's looking to partner with other schools to support all New Bedford students.
“We always look at how we compare to the state and the New Bedford Public School district,” DeLoach said. “We’re usually within 5-10% of where the state is. It is unique for us to be so far behind where our statewide peers are, and it gives us something to aspire to.”
At Global Learning Public Charter School, administrators pointed to a “particular bright spot… in the scoring of our high-needs subgroup.” Those are students with an IEP, English learners and low-income students, who this year “met or exceeded the state average in English, Math and Science at both the middle school and high school grades.“
Stevens, the GLCPS curriculum director, said that the subgroup ranked in the 70th percentile against its statewide peers.
“Even with the positive news, we realize that not all students showed equal progress or
achieved at expected levels,” he said while promising continued efforts at remediation.
Other schools in the region have also failed to regain achievement levels seen before the pandemic, including the suburban districts of Fairhaven and Dartmouth.
Student profiles are significantly different in nearby districts, creating different challenges, especially during the pandemic. Even at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School, the racial, economic, and language make-up differs significantly from New Bedford Public Schools; for example, there are more than five times as many English learners in New Bedford compared to Voc-Tech.
The public schools also have 50% more high needs students than Voc-Tech does.
The Light did also compare New Bedford Public Schools’ performance to the state’s other large, urban districts. New Bedford was either the lowest or second-lowest performing district compared to the state’s biggest districts in all categories examined (ELA and Math for high school and non-high school), when looking at the number of students passing their exams.
Email Colin Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org