Cambridge Schools Superintendent Jeffrey Young took debated MCAS scores and achievement gaps Tuesday with School Committee members, after the death of a student Sunday and a citywide day of mourning. This photo is from an earlier meeting. (Photo: Rachel Offerdahl)

Recalling Sunday’s fatal shooting of 16-year-old Charlene Holmes and how the city and schools handled it made for an emotional half-hour start to Tuesday’s meeting of the School Committee, and the following three hours never quite made it back to cold, hard rationality.

Superintendent Jeffrey Young revealed perhaps the most dramatic emotional swing of the sort that follows trauma, giving a long, extemporaneous speech on the tragedy that brought some in the meeting room to tears and later responding almost petulantly to criticism of missed goals in standardized test improvements.

“I want to caution the School Committee. In focusing on what didn’t get done, you can run a risk of giving an administration an incentive to aim to do less, so as to meet an artificially lower goal,” Young said. “We set those goals pretty ambitiously, perhaps too ambitiously, at least judging by the reaction of the School Committee tonight.”

It wasn’t just the trauma of the shootings, which also critically injured a senior set to graduate Thursday, but the distraction and time lost dealing with them that combined to move the committee again and again to compromises — some of them odd — for the sake of getting through the agenda at this last meeting before taking much of the summer off:

Committee members spoke passionately of the unfairness of harsh zero-tolerance policies that lump in students who throw erasers with those carrying actual weapons and result in suspensions for kids found with drinkers or drug users, even if the students didn’t know their friends had alcohol or drugs on them. But the policies no one liked moved to a second reading, ostensibly to be dealt with later.

An end-of-year report from Young on meeting goals was moved to the committee’s sole summer meeting, July 31. Like other members, Mayor Henrietta Davis said a focus on the Sunday shootings kept her from reading the report, and with the July meeting suddenly looking crowded, Davis suggested moving the setting of two-year goals all the way to Oct. 24. (Young objected that he felt “October was too late for us to be starting this process,” and vowed to check with other officials to figure out a good approach to tackling the job in July.)

When member Patty Nolan wondered at spending $30,000 for a 20-student summer literacy program that lacked the typical measurable goals and accountability, her peers and school officials supported the program largely as it stood and even credited the Cambridge Housing Authority with acknowledging its measures “were not useful”; vice chairman Fred Fantini said he was “a big measurement guy, but for some reason I thought it was refreshingly honest that they said, ‘Hey, listen, you know, we’re just kidding you to develop an evaluation system here.’ … I thought it was great they didn’t do that.” In seeking ways to measure the program’s results, Nolan pointed that its materials said 17 out of 18 students was 75 percent, when it’s actually 94 percent, and Davis responded surprisingly strongly:

“I sense a level of distrust that’s making me feel quite uncomfortable … What I see as a typo here, you called out as an error, and I think that’s really not fair. We really ought to be thinking about working with people, trying to find ways to increase our understanding of where they’re coming from and how they’re trying to parlay their strengths into something that translates for a mere $1,500 [per student] — that sounds like a bargain to me when you think about what people are paying for camp for their kids. And what is this, five or six weeks? Let’s be real here, that is not a high price for a six-week program. I find myself offended that we would take on and deal with this very trustworthy program in this way. I don’t want to leave the impression that we wouldn’t give them an opportunity to answer any concerns any one of us might have … coming with conclusions that kind of rips the program to shreds in a way seems unfair to the kids who in the long run really need this help. I find that very troublesome.”

(It was just one of Tuesday’s odd interactions between the two. A recording shows that in mentioning the incorrect percentage, Nolan in fact said the program’s text “either had typos or not,” not that Nolan called it “an error”; already that evening the mayor had told Nolan sharply, “Please do not shout out, Miss Nolan,” although there’s no sound of Nolan on tape at that point, and although all committee members call out throughout meetings to catch the chair’s attention. And in seeking to “clarify” her comments, Davis told Nolan that “tone matters, and when you hear a tone that isn’t diplomatic sometimes it comes across as more lacerating than constructive,” and again Davis’ rebuke seem at odds with Nolan’s tone as recorded on audio. A video stream of the meeting is to be posted within days.)

Richard Harding thought Nolan made a good point about program accountability and “wanted to make it better,” but supported the program as having a good track record with the district — and as someone who’d come through the program himself as a youth. (“How many years ago was that?” one parent said later, wondering if the program had maintained its quality.)

Test results disappoint

Accountability issues returned as a theme when looking at test results, as a look through Young’s year-end report showed MCAS improvement targets for the past two years were less than projected for all students, with only Asian students beating projections and white, Hispanic, black, low-income and special education students falling under. In some cases, the difference between expectations and reality in the “proficient and advanced” category was significant: Special education students were expected to improve 19 percent in English language arts and 23 percent in math, for instance, but showed zero and 4 percent improvement respectively. In looking at all students, though, English language arts improvements were anticipated to be 7 percent and wound up at 5 percent; in math, a 12 percent hoped-for improvement resulted in a result of 7 percent.

Young was hired in April 2009.

“I do think you’ve done a good job in very difficult times, but you know what they say: Numbers don’t lie. They’re not mine, they’re not yours, they’re just numbers. They speak and articulate a story I think we all should be concerned about,” Harding said.

Harding credited Young for his work in bringing the Innovation Agenda to life, but noted that the opening of four upper schools for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders and the creation of curricula and hiring of staff, all coming to fruition Sept. 4, meant that “there’s going to be a renewed focus not only from the public, as it should be, but in our understanding that Cambridge has an amazing amount of resources and that we can do better across the board.”

There was acknowledgment that Cambridge’s relationship with the standardized test has always been complicated and started out as outright hostile, with the school system refusing to punish students who boycotted. Member Marc McGovern said that the city now had “a little bit of an identity crisis. On the one hand we say we don’t want to be ruled by MCAS scores, we don’t want to teach to the test and we don’t want that to be the driving force, but then that’s the measure we always use to determine whether we’re a successful district.” He asked about a way the district could determine success for itself, outside standardized testing.

National gaps persist

But the test results were “glaring,” Harding said, and Mervan Osborne expressed frustration over stubborn achievement gaps between races in which Cambridge figures tracked national figures closely — at a roughly 26 percent difference between black and white students. “This isn’t going anywhere, this isn’t changing,” Osborne said, asking if the district could play a role in asking tough questions about ethnicity and academics.

Yes, the superintendent said. But he also wanted to “redefine the gap as no longer being between Asian and white students and the other subgroups. That’s not the gap we’re interested in. The gap we’re interested in is proficiency for all … the subgroups all have some level of gap, but we don’t want to compare this student to that student as much as all students to a standard.”

There was no response to his approach to looking at an achievement gap that has pained the city for decades, and Davis moved to close discussion. It was a muted end to a talk that started with Young declining to say when there would be a new set of measures (“We’ll have that report for you when we have it, because when we’re a little late we get in trouble”) and saying he’d been warned by staff years ago that he was setting achievement goals too high. “One thing I might take away from this is that we might set lower goals so that we can do better on them. I don’t think that’s the message you want me to take away, but in a way it’s hard not to,” he told the committee.

Nolan didn’t like the answer much more than she liked the figures being discussed, and told Young it “wasn’t about blame” but about finding better ways to educate.

He backed away immediately from the idea of lowering expectations, saying “All I can tell you is that we’re going to continue to set ambitious goals and do our best to meet them. Nor are we trying to conceal or withhold this information from the public. It’s a written document, it’s a choice we made to report it in the way you see here. We ask you to view it in the context of the entire report.”

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