McKersie says there is good news in test results

This is the second in a series of stories based on an interview with Superintendent of Schools William McKersie. A look at the district’s efforts to bring racial balance to the schools is available in the Aug. 2 edition of the Post.

 

With new Superintendent of Schools William McKersie settling into office, one of the first things he had before him were the latest round of state test scores for Greenwich students.

Last month scores for the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) and Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) were revealed, and while some areas of improvement were found, for the most part scores were level and did not show the district gaining on other districts in the state. With Greenwich spending the highest amount per student in the state, parents have demanded action on test scores and the achievement gap, and Dr. McKersie spoke to the Post about what he would do to improve student performance.

The scores, which were recorded on tests that happened before Dr. McKersie took over, “are in a good place,” he said.

“They represent, from what I can see, a very plan-based approach and hard work by teachers and principals and central office along with good direction from the board,” Dr. McKersie said. “It represents all of that and I think that’s very important. It also reflects that this is a very sophisticated set of results and data. This information is not random. It’s based on where we are and how we can get to a higher level.”

Last year’s test results were called unacceptable by parents and district officials, and the Board of Education is in the middle of an effort to try and better identify the root causes of test score problems to offer more direct action. Dr. McKersie said that there are areas where progress has been measured and areas where it is flat and others with “slight declines.” He said it was important to not get too caught up in rankings of where Greenwich was versus other schools in district resource group (DRG) B, which is where the district is placed, and DRG A, which includes nearby districts like Darien and New Canaan.

“I’ve taken the strong stand that the DRG A, DRG B, southeastern Connecticut comparison is very, very valuable for providing context and providing comparison points, but in many, many cases it’s a disservice to a very sophisticated community to use it as ranking data,” Dr. McKersie said. “I can assure you that we work with this data and we are going to go far and deep with it. Principals will show me how we compare to DRG A and DRG B and show me how we can move to another level. But these results do show hard work and we have to remember that and we have to feel good about that.”

Dr. McKersie said that the results show that Greenwich “in so many of these areas is right smack in the mix of one of the highest performing set of districts you can put together from the DRG As and the DRG Bs.” He added that Greenwich is also one of the most diverse districts.

“A fundamental understanding in education is that the more homogeneous your populations get, you need more investment to provide and address the needs of that heterogeneous population,” Dr. McKersie said. “It’s been a fundamental aspect of federal education policy, state education policy and the whole advent of programs like No Child Left Behind.”

In past discussions about test scores, former Superintendent Sid Freund, district officials and members of the Board of Education pointed to what they see as a type of three-year learning curve. They point to data they say shows that once students who are new to the district have been in it for three years they progress at the same rate as the rest of the students, but what doesn’t happen is the gap that first occurred when they started school doesn’t close.

Dr. McKersie indicated he too accepted this thinking, saying that “education is a human endeavor.”

“As I learn to do something, do I learn to do it right away?” Dr. McKersie said. “None of us get to a high level of achievement immediately. If I’m coming into a situation where, through no fault of my own, I haven’t been around the books or intensely involved, it has to be a process. In way you have to almost say, ‘OK, Greenwich, let’s calm down a little because if you’re expecting in one or two years for a human being to be able to take on new, very complex tasks you have to remember you’re not doing it in your work environment. If I’m a musician, I’m not doing it. If I’m an athlete I’m not doing it. It takes time.”

Dr. McKersie said Greenwich “has to get better” and that he believes if the data shows improvement over the next three years “it’s where you want to be.”

But issues of student performance do not just stop with standardized tests. There is an achievement gap despite Greenwich spending as much as it does per student. Dr. McKersie said he would look at other comparable districts to see how they really do match up and understand “what they may be doing that we are not doing.” While Greenwich does have a lot of students speaking English as a second language, he said that is not an excuse.

“Demographics is not destiny,” Dr. McKersie said. “They matter immensely as you’re trying to teach and learn. We have to look at other districts to see what they are doing that makes a difference.”

This is an area where Dr. McKersie said adjustments in what the town’s magnet schools offer could have an impact. But he says he does not have all the answers and will have to ask questions and examine the data.

The first day of school is set for Aug. 28, meaning Dr. McKersie will still be learning about the district as the year begins. But he doesn’t feel there will be a steep learning curve because of the staff in the central office, in the individual schools and his experience in education. He said one stamp he’s already made is by getting the focus on the common core curriculum as a baseline.

“A good superintendent is someone who is a team leader and is someone who has a keen sense about what matters most in a district and how you help to move a district to even higher levels,” Dr. McKersie said. “You can’t be satisfied with where you are and stop striving. If I can make an imprint sooner rather than later it will be a stylistic one. I want to focus this district on academic rigor and civic dedication. There’s a very important balance in that. I also want to beat the drum on our great successes. We have them and its important to keep saying that. That comes from my days of teaching and coaching. If you don’t feel good about what you’re doing and see your successes, it’s hard to have the energy to go to the next level.”

 

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