Exclusive: Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School responds to drop in MCAS math score

Students scoring advanced or proficient on the Grade 8 MCAS math test at the charter school dropped by 12 percent
Exclusive interview with Executive Director Paul Niles.

Exclusive: Lighthouse Charter responds to MCAS math

Grade 8 math drops but students improved 112%

No middle school on the Cape has worked harder to improve math scores than Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in Harwich. With all that effort, CCLCS’s spring 2013 MCAS math scores are a bittersweet harvest.

Students scoring advanced or proficient on the Grade 8 MCAS math test at the charter school dropped by 12 percentage points to 59% versus last year’s 71%. Year-over-year that drop is a concern. For the school’s class of 2013 this represented a slight improvement over last year’s 54% advanced/proficient score in Grade 7 mathematics. Students who failed the math test, the number dropped by 2 percentage points between the class’s 7th and 8th grade scores.

112% Improvement

CCLCS Executive Director Paul Niles told Cape Cod Today he is pleased with the individual growth between the class of 2013’s 7th and 8th grade math tests.

Last year the school implemented an intensive “Math in Action” program to support students who arrived at the school without basic number sense skills and math concepts typically learned by sixth grade.

Niles reports that “students in the ‘Math in Action seminar’ showed a 100% improvement in their growth profiles.”

Lighthouse Charter practices a philosophy of “taking the students where we find them and helping them advance.” “Math in Action” is designed to give extra attention to the children who need intensive math skill support.

Different Strokes

In 2012-13 the school began grouping students together by ability for math classes. This allows advanced students to work at an accelerated pace while students in need of more support receive that “intensive care” that will put them apace of most other Massachusetts students at their grade level.

Mr. Niles reports that this year students are also grouped by ability for their science classes. He went on to talk about the “very different learning styles” of the advanced students versus those less so. The lower skill groups learn science in a much more “hands on” manner than do other students. For this group Niles says he employs much more lab work and physical activity to reinforce important concepts. This creates a classroom dynamic that motivates students with concrete demonstrations of “book knowledge”.

In addition to focusing on students who need extra support, Lighthouse Charter takes great pride in the opportunities it provides for advanced students. Mr. Niles enthused about “a student who is taking an online high school Honors Geometry class under my supervision.” The school needed to download specialized software for this class and find a place for him to work each day. They used one of the laptops they received from the Masonic Angel Foundation’s Laptops for KidZ project to create a portable “virtual classroom” just for this student.

Niles Responds to 2013 MCAS

We asked Paul Niles for his remarks on the 2013 MCAS scores. His statement is published below exactly as he submitted it:

Paul Niles: Thanks for the inquiry on last spring's MCAS scores.

Although at the surface these scores may not look like an improvement, there are several points to consider:

1. We successfully shored up the poor performance in the 7th grade from 2012. This same cohort, as 8th graders, had a median growth percentile of 53.0, up from an unacceptable 25.0 in 2012. Students who participated in Math In Action saw a doubling of their growth profiles.

2. Overall, the school's Median SGP in math showed a 21% improvement.

3. The 7th grade SGP showed a 42% improvement, although at 35.5, it remains too low, and we are taking steps to address this.

4. The 6th grade performance was relatively strong, but the growth profile was too low (32.0). See improvement steps outlined below.

5. The overall school statistics are somewhat muted by the fact that a very high performing 8th grade group's data was replaced by a much needier 6th grade group's data. As a small system, our overall numbers are very much affected by these kinds of demographic shifts.

6. Our performance in ELA and Sci/Tech remains very high.

Looking Forward

We then queried Mr. Niles on how the school would approach the math challenge moving forward, he provided us with a three point approach to further improve math scores in the upcoming year. Mr. Niles statement appears verbatim below:

Paul Niles: We are committed to a culture of constant self reflection and improvement. This had led to several changes in our math approach this year:

1. Our lead 8th grade math teacher, Liz Novak, has been named to fill a newly created math department leadership position. In addition to teaching 8th graders, Liz will closely mentor all of the school's math teachers. This will include oversight of curriculum mapping, pacing, assessment development and instructional methodology.

2. All math teachers will be teaching a reduced load to allow for more time to staff math labs for extra help, and to allow for mentoring time.

3. For the first time in our history, we will start tracking students during the 2nd term in 6th grade. We expect this to help with a pattern of lagging SGPs in 6th grade math, and will allow for better placement data for 7th grade students.

Curriculum by Lottery

A great challenge to the charter school educator is what we call “curriculum by lottery”. Much like Forest Gump’s “box of chocolates”, a charter school never knows what their “gonna get” until the lottery is drawn and student records start to arrive.

In a traditional public middle school, teachers and administrators know pretty much what’s “coming at them” each year. They can track students’ skill assessments back for several years. This will tell them that a particular class needs extra help in certain skill domains while other classes are shown to be advanced in other areas.

In a charter school the entering students arrive via random lottery. This means the charter staff must move very fast to assess student skills and plan for their advancement. For the highest need students, the math staff continues to do weekly formative evaluations.

Once sixth graders arrive at the charter school they are now grouped by ability for both math and science instruction. In order to address the math challenge head-on, Paul Niles reports that this year, for the first time, they will start tracking students at the sixth grade level.

Lighthouse Charter retains its tradition of working with students at all levels of achievement. The maturing of the “Math in Action” program over the next two school years should continue to show significant gains in individual achievement by children who might otherwise have been left behind.

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