East End Community School Hopes to Shake Poor Public Perception

Principal Marcia Gendron greets students and parents at the entrance to the East End Community School Wednesday.

Children and parents lined up outside the East End Community School Wednesday in eager anticipation of the first day back at school.

State testing has garnered the school a failing grade in recent years, creating a perception that Principal Marcia Gendron hopes to shake with a new high-stakes testing vendor; one she says is more adaptive to her diverse student body and can track children's progress over time.

As recently as last year, EECS placed at number 249 out of 291 public elementary schools in Maine when held to the State standard. Student proficiency was rated at 42.94%, as compared to the state average of 47.8%. Indeed, EECS ranked worse than 85.6% of elementary schools in Maine, according to School Digger, an online consolidator of school test scores.

However, attendance, according to Principal Marcia Gendron was 96% across all classes, a fundamental metric for any school. Principal Marcia Gendron attributes this, in part, to the Rise and Shine program which allows students to start the day with 30 minutes of special instruction four days per week in areas of the students' choosing including art, drama, engineering, etc. Additionally, the average student-to-teacher classroom ratio was 11 to 1, better than most elementary schools in the district. So where's the snag?

Critics of the school's bad press say it's undeserved, and point to evidence that standardized testing skews to more affluent families and native English speakers. Demographically, roughly 55% of students last year were non-white, the most diverse student body in the state. Also, free and reduced lunch in the student body was over 75%.

Not one metric can ever measure the complexity of a learning environment.
— Marcia Gendron, EECS Principal

The testing program that delivered the F grades, the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP, tested children in grades 3 and 4 in the areas of math and reading (grade 5 is tested on writing as well). A large number of the students at EECS are children of asylum seekers, immigrants and refugees who are considered English language learners (ELL) and therefore are prone to do poorly or, according to Gendron, will simply stare at the page unable to comprehend the test questions.

Beyond socioeconomic skew, Ms. Gendron sees other mechanics at play. For instance, testing is administered to students who may have done their learning elsewhere. That is, not all students rise up through the K-5 ranks at this school or even in this Hemisphere. For example a child coming into the U.S. as a 4th or 5th grader won't have the benefit afforded to a child arriving at the kindergarten level. Also a fluid immigrant population means kids may only be at the school for a year or two. This phenomenon starts to make the NECAP result look pretty ugly, as heavy weight is applied to growth at the bottom 25% of scores.

Kate Connolly, President of the PTO at the East End school had this to say about the NECAP testing that generated the 'F' grades in 2013 and 2014.

The governor's grading system is nonsense. It's an inept and callous political exercise with invalid conclusions. The 'grades' do not assess teacher and school quality which is what they purport to be measuring. The governor's tests do accurately illustrate the scope of disparity between Maine's wealthier more advantaged verses its poorer disadvantaged communities. The grading is a waste of time and money because those disparities are already well known. Moreover, it's profoundly insensitive to our kids, families and school staff. East End has excellent, hard working and highly skilled teachers and administrators serving this community's children, many of whom face life's toughest challenges. A valid analysis would be to measure progress and performance within each school rather than between schools. 

The NECAP was retired after 2014 in favor of the Smarter Balanced assessment which was itself retired after just one year. Gendron says the 2015 Smarter Balanced scores showed promise and measured student proficiency against the Common Core in a way that was more in tune with a diverse student body.

2014 EECS report card from the Maine Department of Education, the final year of the NECAP.

This year, Portland schools are using Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), a testing battery developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). From the Association's website:

The MAP tests are adaptive which means the difficulty of each question is based on how well a student answers all the previous questions. As the student answers correctly, questions become more difficult. If the student answers incorrectly, the questions become easier. In an optimal test, a student answers approximately half the items correctly and half incorrectly. The final score is an estimate of the student’s achievement level.

This year, EECS will use MAP testing for grades 3-5. Additionally, for pre-K through 2nd grades, a related NWEA testing protocol called Children's Progress Academic Assessment (CPAA) will be administered. Again according to NWEA:

CPAA provides a personalized assessment experience that supports your youngest learners’ unique developmental needs. Designed by Columbia University and MIT researchers, our adaptive skills assessment offers educators a reliable tool to guide targeted instruction for early childhood learning. In addition, CPAA offers easy-to-understand parent reports and instructional activities for the home.

Gendron is positive about the shift to the NWEA products for a number of reasons. She cites the four areas of literacy that are the focus of MAP testing: listening, speaking, reading and writing (which she says are generally acquired by children in that order) and says NWEA not only adapts to the child's understanding during the test, but tracks progress longitudinally year-over-year. This means that by the time East End kids end up at Lyman Moore or King middle schools, which also participate in NWEA testing, their progress can be traced back to elementary school, creating a much more nuanced learning panorama for parents, educators and policy makers. Gendron added that because the CPAA and MAP tests are longitudinal, this year's results will not be as meaningful as next year's results.

My boys have come to know children and families from all parts of the world, and the staff and students alike are talented, devoted, courageous, resilient, smart, and dazzling. How do we measure that?
— Kate Connolly, PTO President

Mostly, Marcia Gendron hopes NWEA testing will lift the shroud of negative publicity from the school and allow teachers and students to demonstrate the progress being made at the top of Munjoy Hill, but in her words "Not one metric can ever measure the complexity of a learning environment."

And what about that learning environment? Kate Connolly offers the following:

East End Community School has been A plus for us, an excellent elementary education experience for my two sons now 13 and 10. They have attended since kindergarten and we have loved East End where the academics are rigorous, the learning is relevant and the emphasis is always on respectful relationships.The experience has been truly excellent; my boys have come to know children and families from all parts of the world, and the staff and students alike are talented, devoted, courageous, resilient, smart, and dazzling. How do we measure that?