The number of students who took the assessment tests, known as the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAPS, and who passed with scores of "proficient" or better, have seen declines in recent years. While the school directors have typically heard an analysis of the test results annually, the latest round of testing conducted last fall has raised some concerns, said Katie McNabb, the chairwoman of the Manchester school board.
"The NECAP scores give concern that Manchester is losing ground," she said. "They're only one piece of the picture ... we need to get a 1,000 foot view on where do our kids stand."
Of particular concern may be the scores posted by MEMS students in math and science. According to test data from the state Department of Education, in 2005, the year the NECAPs were introduced, 74.2 percent of all students in MEMS tested between third and eighth grade scored as proficient or better in math. That number held fairly steady through the rest of that decade, reaching a high of 76.7 percent in 2009. In the last three years, however, the number of students posting scores that are proficient or better has steadily declined, reaching 59.9 percent in testing conducted last fall, in 2012.
Science testing for eighth graders was introduced in 2008, and that year, 34.2 percent of students tested were proficient or better. In 2010, that number increased to 46.4 percent; however last year, only 16.4 percent passed with proficient scores, results McNabb termed "scary."
In reading, the picture has been somewhat more stable. In 2005, 72 percent of students tested in reading between third and eighth grade were deemed proficient. That number reached over 80 percent the next year and stayed in the low 80s until 2010, when it dropped to slightly more than 75 percent before settling at 71.2 percent last year, roughly where it was seven years earlier.
MEMS Principal Sarah Merrill, along with Superintendent Dan Drench, has prepared analysis of the scores that she plans to present to the school board next Tuesday, she said.
Reviewing the test data is all well and good, but she cautioned against seeing them as a comprehensive snapshot of where the school stands. "We want to be a high achieving school and there are a lot of factors that play into that," she said.
The objective will be to crunch the numbers to identify overarching trends and performance gaps that may be emerging between subgroups of students, such as those who are on special learning plans, or eligible for free and reduced lunch because of their family's income status, or by gender.
Historically, girls have outperformed boys academically in most areas, according to the data Merrill and French have assembled and will present to the board during the Tuesday meeting. In 2005, both gender groups were equal in math, with each checking in at 73 percent in terms of proficiency or above. After that, a small but persistent achievement gap began emerging. By 2012, 64 percent of girls were passing proficiently, but only 58 percent of boys.
The gaps are wider in other areas. Last year, in reading, 82 percent of girls were proficient, but only 64 percent of boys. In the writing test, the gap was huge; 77 percent of girls were proficient but only 43 percent of boys.
Income, or rates of poverty, is another area long targeted as a source of a achievement gaps by educators. Schools typically use eligibility for free or reduced price lunch as a measuring stick, and here a persistent and often wide gap in test scores has existed since 2005 across all areas of testing.
That problem may be due in part to the fact that a higher percentage of MEMS students come from lower income brackets than was the case when he started as the superintendent of the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union, said Dan French.
"We've had a significant increase, I would argue, in Manchester; we're upwards of 37 percent free and reduced lunch which is about 10 percent higher than when I was first here six years ago," he said. "We see those students (as an overall group) not performing as well as their non-low-income peers."
This is a national problem which is present across the entire country, he added.
French said the key question was determining which groups of students were struggling and trying to fashion a remedy for that.
One area he ruled out as a factor in test scores were any recent curriculum or program changes.
"You have to look at all aspects of what is going on," he said. "You target the interventions specifically around the subgroups that are causing the decline."
Another factor that might be considered is the increase in the number of tuitioned students who started their academic careers in other schools. There are now about 50 such students at MEMS, more than double the number from a few years ago, according to French.
He and Merrill are also expected to present a series of recommendations about steps that could be taken to support school improvement, according to a document that will be distributed at the board meeting.
He and Merrill will unpack the data for the board and analyze it, French said.
She and other the school directors will be listening closely, McNabb, the board chairwoman said.
"We're at the point where we have to have a plan, something to turn this around," she said.
The April 9 school board meeting will take place at MEMS and start at 6:30 p.m.