Absenteeism impacts MCAS scores in Palmer and statewide

Nov. 18, 2022 | Lauren LeBel

PALMER – The Palmer Public School District is no different from other districts across the state when it comes to issues impacting the 2022 MCAS scores.

“One of the biggest issues across the state and also with our district is the absenteeism,” said Palmer High School Principal Susan North. “The fact that students have been absent from school over the last several years has truly impacted student learning,” and the MCAS scores.

During the Palmer School Committee meeting on Nov. 16, North shared state statistics. In 2021, the average student missed 11 days of school and in 2022, 15 days. Further, 18 percent of all students missed more than 18 days in 2021 and 28 percent missed over 18 days in 2022.

Chronic absenteeism for students in grades 3-8 increased in 2022 by 138 percent, said North. In 2022, 1.7 million days of school were missed because of positive COVID-19 cases. North noted that this does not include staff absences or days missed as close contacts.

For absenteeism in Palmer this year, Old Mill Pond (OMP) Elementary School was at 24 percent and the high school was at 29 percent.

“[If] you think about all those students who are not physically present in school that are missing the instruction, when there are teachers who are out because they are not feeling well, that also impacts the instructional piece,” said North. “This is a huge factor that has absolutely impacted the overall MCAS scores.”

Colleen Culligan, director of student services and interim superintendent, explained that there was also interruption in the test administration itself and students taking it. “Grade 10 students in 2022 hadn’t taken an MCAS test since 2019,” she said. Therefore, some students, grades 7-10, did not take an MCAS test in three years.

Comparing the 2022 to the 2021 statewide test scores, there were mixed results. Through information provided by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, North said, math and science scores increased, and English language arts (ELA) scores decreased. ELA has two focus areas for improvement, which include writing and early literacy. Based on the state results, North said it’s consistent in Palmer as well.

From 2019 to 2022, the MCAS results at OMP did increase by 3 percent. Between 2019 and 2022, Assistant Principal Holly-Beth Riopel said there have been some overall gains in the tested areas. Moving forward with mathematics, she shared that grades 3 through 5 will focus on geometry, measurement and data, operations and more.

“Our largest impact is our ELA area. We are definitely seeing a decline in those early literacy skills for grades 3-5,” said Riopel. “We saw a 12-point decline and we also saw a pretty good decline in our writing – in grades 3-5 – where we saw a 25 percent decline from that 2019 to 2022 state focus.”

Lastly at OMP, Riopel said they need to look more closely at earth and space, along with physical science.
At the high school, North said, “I am extremely proud. Every single person that works in this building has worked extremely hard to increase our numbers.”

In 2018, the school’s percentile for accountability was 18. In 2019, this increased to 28 percent. This year, North noted that accountability has gone up to 30 percent. The accountability indicators include the ELA average scaled score, mathematics and science, along with graduation rates, extended engagement rate, annual dropout rate, chronic absenteeism and more.

To reach a percentile, North explained that the state looks at every school district in Massachusetts, their indicators and then calculates a percentage of where they fall. The scale is out of 100. “We have a long way to go,” said North. “We have increased so we are moving in the right direction, and we are celebrating that.”

She went on to recognize the areas in grades 6, 7, 8 and 10 that need improvement for math and ELA. Overall, she said geometry is an area that needs more attention along with writing.

Moving forward, North and Riopel shared the next steps for Palmer Public Schools. Some of this includes MCAS boot camps for ELA and math, English language learners meeting with interventionists, weekly professional learning community meetings and PHS graduation meetings to discuss students at risk to problem solve, to name a few.

North noted that 100 percent of staff in Palmer are licensed teachers, compared to 97.8 percent on the state level.

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