Brighton High School and Excel High School in Boston have been downgraded to Level 4 in the state's accountability system, along with the Mary Fonseca Elementary School in Fall River.
That designation, announced Monday in the state education department's release of the 2016 standardized tests results, places the schools in the "lowest achieving and least improving" category, just one step up from being placed under state control. The move triggers the development of a turnaround plan, which Level 4 schools must create in collaboration with the state department.
Brighton and Excel were downgraded because of "declining results for multiple years," said Mitchell Chester, state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, in a press call. "When I look at the track record — it's distressing, to be quite honest with you."
Not only are achievement levels "very low" and not improving in those schools, Chester said, but graduation rates are very low as well.
"They're really stuck," he said. "We need to rectify that."
In addition to the three schools newly placed at Level 4, the department said it will more closely review two already at that level — Boston's Mattahunt Elementary and Springfield's High School of Commerce — because Chester is concerned about their pace of improvement.
"These are schools that we have not seen improvement in," Chester said, even though they've been in Level 4 status "for a number of years."
Meanwhile, three schools have met their improvement goals and so will exit Level 4: the K-5 schools Bentley Academy Horace Mann Charter School in Salem and the William N. DeBerry Elementary School in Springfield, and Spark Academy in Lawrence, which serves grades 6-8. Both Bentley and Spark move all the way up to Level 1; DeBerry goes up to Level 3.
The state also commended 49 schools for high achievement and singled out this year's additions to the list of districts where all schools are either Level 1 or 2: Bellingham, Dighton-Rehoboth, Gateway Regional, Medford and Oxford. And it noted that three schools are under consideration at the federal level for recognition as "blue ribbon schools": Morris Elementary in Lenox and Merrymount Elementary in Quincy for their narrowing of achievement gaps, and Daniel Butler Elementary in Belmont for high performance.
Chester also singled out the Lawrence district and Boston's English High School for making progress.
"English High deserves a tremendous amount of credit," he said, even though its level has not changed. "The challenge for me is the graduation rate remains low."
Overall, Chester said, "There's a lot of good news here."
As for test results, statewide results in grade 10 were essentially flat: 91 percent of students scored proficient or higher in English language arts, the same as last year; 78 percent did so in math, one point lower than last year, and 73 percent in science, up one point.
"Each of these is a substantial increase" from five or 10 years ago, Chester said.
Changes in the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers were similarly small: one point narrower for English language arts, and mixed for math. The gap between African-American and white students grew by two points, while the gap between Hispanic/Latino and white students did not change.
Science results dropped for fifth- and eighth-graders: by four points in fifth grade, where 47 percent scored proficient or higher, and by one point in eighth grade, with 41 percent proficient or better.
The science drop in fifth grade, Chester said, "is an area that we continue to look at."
Those are the only statewide results available this year. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said it would not release statewide results in math and English language arts for grades 3-8 because it could not create a valid representative sample, as a result of demographic differences among districts choosing PARCC vs. those choosing MCAS. The 10th-grade results were available because all high schools continued to use MCAS, which is a graduation requirement.
The results were made public at 4:30 p.m., but Boston Mayor Marty Walsh spoke about them on Boston Herald Radio Monday morning. Noting that Boston Latin School was downgraded to Level 2 because not enough students were tested, Walsh called the change "unacceptable" and said "it doesn't make sense" to pilot new tests while still holding schools accountable for them.
"I think we've been very clear with our schools and our districts," Chester responded. "For the last 15 years we've expected full participation in our testing."
Walsh said the downgrade happened because 13 middle school students opted out of the PARCC test. But Chester said that, even after discounting those 13, the school's participation rate was still below 95 percent, which is the federal and state minimum for participation. In all, 41 schools statewide were downgraded for this reason.
Asked if it was fair to downgrade schools solely for low participation, Chester responded: "I think it's quite fair. We gave a lot of notice."
"We were very clear with school districts on that requirement," he added. "Districts who made that choice knew the ground rules."
Chester dismissed the possibility that opt-outs were a response to PARCC, noting that the 41 schools included ones offering both MCAS and PARCC. In addition, he said opting out has occurred since state testing began in the 1990s, before PARCC existed.
"The opt-out figures are very low statewide," Chester said. "It hasn't changed much at all from what it's been historically — 1 percent, maybe sometimes 2 percent."
This was the second year that districts could choose between MCAS and PARCC, although schools that administered PARCC in 2015 could not go back to MCAS. It is also the last year for both tests. In spring 2017, the state will roll out "MCAS 2.0," a new assessment that is still in development.
The technology for the new test is also under development. Technical specifications were recently released, and schools have until Oct. 14 to inform the department whether they have the necessary equipment. This year, about 72 percent of students in grades 3-8 took PARCC, the department said, while 28 percent took MCAS. MCAS is a paper test; about 44 percent of PARCC districts used computer based tests, 39 percent used paper, and 17 percent used both.
Chester said the spring 2017 test will be another "hold harmless" year for grades 3-8, meaning that schools will not be downgraded if their 2017 scores are lower than previous ones.
"That will become kind of a baseline for going forward," he said, while acknowledging the challenge of comparing results from year to year when schools have used multiple tests: MCAS, PARCC and now MCAS 2.0.
"We are in a period of transition, which makes it a little bit harder to eyeball the results," Chester said. But he said districts that gave PARCC in both 2015 and 2016 generally showed higher scores in the second year.
"We also have some statistical techniques," he said, that will help determine how performance on the new test aligns with older results.
"We are heading," Chester said, "into a new testing era."