Mt. Hope celebrates historic year for SATs

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 11/16/22

Data showed Mt. Hope High School as the highest performing district in the state in terms of growth over last year, and the overall 7th-highest performing district out of 44 reporting schools for the ELA portion of the SATs.

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Mt. Hope celebrates historic year for SATs


While much of the rest of the state saw a slight decrease in high school student achievement scores, Bristol Warren educators have some reasons to rejoice following the recent release of standardized test data from the state.

The data showed Mt. Hope High School as the highest performing district in the state in terms of growth over last year, and the overall 7th-highest performing district out of 44 reporting schools for the ELA portion of the SATs.

Data from 2018-19 (before Covid struck) showed 68.8% of Mt. Hope students met or exceeded standards on the ELA SAT. During 2020-21 (in the thick of remote learning and interruptions due to illness), that dipped way down to 47.7%. But this most recent data showed a surge of achievement, jumping back up to 72% in 2021-22 and surpassing even the pre-Covid numbers.

“It’s monumental, easily the highest numbers we’ve ever seen,” said Patrick Jackson, humanities chair for Mt. Hope. “But even in the context of what everyone else is doing — where they’re remaining static or decreasing — we’re not only returning to normalcy, but creating a new normalcy where the achievement is higher than ever.”

The top 10 districts in Rhode Island for ELA proficiency on the SATs (from first, to tenth) goes: East Greenwich (84.5%); Barrington (83.5%); South Kingstown (75.3%); Portsmouth (74.6%); North Kingstown (73.7%); Exeter/West Greenwich (72.9%); Bristol Warren (71.6%); Narragansett (69%); North Smithfield (68.6%); and Lincoln (64.7%).

A state leader in growth
The achievement of Mt. Hope’s ELA performance becomes more profound when looking at growth numbers among other Rhode Island districts and at the state average.

Overall, the increase of 24 percentage points in proficiency from last year to this year is the highest such jump among all other schools in Rhode Island. That also breaks down to best-in-state numbers for average student growth, the number of high growth students, and the fewest number of low-growth students.

“It’s not just anecdotal, the data bears it out,” Jackson said. “If you look at the data, we had the highest percentage of students with high growth in the state by almost 10 percentage points, it’s not even close.”

Mt. Hope scored a 57 in that high growth category. For context, the statewide average for high student growth is about 30, and the next closest district for that number is Lincoln, at 48.

Average growth is a number that looks at all students. In this metric, Mt. Hope scored a state-high rating of 68, while the next closest district, South Kingstown, scored a 61.

“It just showed how hard the kids worked to improve,” Jackson said. “It was a true partnership between the teachers and the students. A real commitment to taking pride in our school and representing our school in the best way possible and acceptance of the SAT as a personal challenge to show what they themselves, the students, could do.”

Jackson specifically mentioned teachers Tricia Talbot, Kirsten Towers, Kerry D’Angelo, Jenn Cupolo, and Bethany Balzano as instrumental towards improving achievement numbers, as well as Superintendent Dr. Ana Riley for her guidance and support.

“She [Riley] has supported this achievement mission like no other superintendent,” he said. “Getting personally involved and helping us wherever we need help. Doing tangible things. She was just in the school meeting with my teachers last week. That support means a lot knowing that everyone is behind the effort.”

During Monday night’s school committee meeting, Riley and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Diane Sana led the board members through a presentation on the district’s data. While they lauded the high school on its ELA performance, they also made sure to indicate that at the elementary and middle school levels, there was a similar decrease in ELA proficiency as seen elsewhere in the state.

Across all grades, those taking the RICAS assessment in middle school went from 49.4% proficiency in 2020-21, to 44.1% in 2021-22. Grade 8, assessed on its own, did see an increase over last year, from 34.3% to 43.3%.

“National studies on the effects of Covid-19 showed younger students were more affected than older students, who are better able to self-regulate learning,” Sanna said. “Relatedly, research confirms that scaffolding provided by teachers in the classroom in person is critical for learning, especially for younger students…Overall, the results you’ll see this evening show the need for continued focus and acceleration to achieve our district goal of 75 percent proficiency by 2027.”

More work to do in high school math
The district’s performance in math has been a consistent pain point, discussed often during school committee meetings and by candidates who recently ran for positions on the school committee leading up to last week’s election.

Mt. Hope students were meeting or exceeding expectations at 36% and 40% in 2017-18 and 2018-19, before falling sharply during the Covid years to 23.4%.

Although those numbers jumped up in 2021-22, to 28.3% proficient, they still lag significantly behind pre-Covid numbers, and it is an area of focus that administrators and educators know requires some attention.

“My personal philosophy is I’m sort of throwing out that Covid year of data,” said math department chair Wayne Lima. “We did improve upon the really bad Covid year, but we still aren’t where we were prior to that.”

Lima said that the district is in the midst of a three-year phase in process for new math curriculum that will, hopefully, better help students adjust to the sometimes confusing language experienced within the SAT.

“Research shows that the two most beneficial methods of teaching mathematics is teaching about problem solving, and then teaching through problem solving,” Lima said. “That’s exactly what the illustrative math curriculum does.”

On top of the new curriculum, which is currently being utilized in Algebra 1 classes and will be expanded to Algebra 2 and geometry classes in the next two years, Lima said that students are now receiving quarterly assessments that utilize released SAT questions to get them familiar with the format ahead of their final assessments. After each practice test, teachers will be able to analyze the results and better target areas where students need more help.

Lima also said teachers are more often encouraging students to take the offered year-long SAT prep class depending on their PSAT results.

“It is basically a year-long boot camp to teach them strategies on how to successfully navigate the language the SATs use to help the student to understand what the questions are actually asking,” he explained.

Lima attributed the low test scores, predominantly, to the interruptions wreaked by Covid.

“I think we were just starting to hit our stride in terms of understanding the SAT better. We had that jump where we started being in the 40th percentile, which still isn’t great but it’s been better than we’ve done historically, but then Covid hit and we got knocked down a peg,” he said. “The loss of instructional time over that really two years is significant.”

Younger students show promising signs on math
Students in middle schools fared better in their RICAS math assessments, returning close to pre-Covid proficiency when assessed in aggregate — from 41.8% in 2018-19, down to 28.7% in 2020-21, and back up to 40.7% in 2021-22.

Sanna said that 6th graders, specifically, showed a 17 percent increase from last year in math, while 4th graders had their highest proficiency numbers in recent years (54.5%, surpassing their pre-Covid numbers).

Sanna said that positive results in math are expected to increase as new curriculum — similar to the curriculum described by Lima at Mt. Hope High School above — is adopted and taught throughout the lower grade levels.

“We have a long way to go but we’re very optimistic with the results and seeing that we are making progress,” she said.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.