A new school year begins Monday in Springfield, Massachusetts where rising standardized test scores and a falling dropout rate are seen as signs of a turnaround in the struggling public school system. A new test, based on the Common Core educational standards, will be introduced in a majority of the city’s schools next year.
The scores of last year’s MCAS tests given to Springfield school students rose across the board at a higher rate than the gain recorded by school districts statewide, and the dropout rate has fallen more than any other school system in the state.
" Our most important metric is the dropout rate," said Superintendent of Schools Dan Warwick. " In the last two years we've taken it from 11.5 to 6.5 percent, an incredible decrease. So, we are very proud of that."
Warwick said the turnaround plan he introduced when he became superintendent three years ago is working. Warwick spoke Friday to an annual convocation of faculty and staff. He called the district’s 2,700 teachers “heroes” and “the heart and soul of the Springfield schools.”
This year, roughly 65 percent of the Springfield schools will administer a computer-based test known as PARCC. State education officials are evaluating PARCC as a possible replacement to the MCAS, which has been used in Massachusetts since the 1990s. School districts were given the option this year to use either PARCC or MCAS. PARCC is based on the Common Core standards.
"The Common Core standards are good for our students," said Warwick. " I do anticipate a drop in scores at those schools, but the change was made around the best interests of the kids."
Andrea Hogan, an English teacher at Van Sickle Middle School, said PARCC will be better for students because it is a more rigorous test than MCAS.
"We are preparing our kids to be 21st Century learners, and to do that you have to think critically. I think these tests are great to get benchmarks and then to show growth."
Tim Collins, long-time president of the Springfield Education Association—the public school teachers union in Springfield—denounced the standardized tests. He called MCAS and PARCC “crooked yardsticks.”
State education officials this summer invalidated MCAS test results at the Dryden elementary school in Springfield citing a high number of erasures in test booklets. Warwick said an investigation is under way.
" There has been no accusation of student cheating, and no proof that has been shared with us of any allegations against staff."
A new arts school will debut in Springfield on Monday with 60 students in grades 6 and 9.
The district will offer universal free lunch for all students this year. Springfield – the second largest school system in New England with 27,000 students -- is one of 10 high-poverty school systems in Massachusetts to qualify for the federally-funded program.
Springfield will receive $15.4 million for the lunch program. Warwick said the meal quality will be improved with more fruits and vegetables on the lunch menu.