Fall River and New Bedford MCAS results, side by side

Mike McCarthy, Research Assistant, Urban Initiative


MCAS scores were released last week, and when I wanted to compare the results from schools in the SouthCoast’s two cities, New Bedford and Fall River, I visited the “2013 SouthCoast MCAS Scores by District” on The Standard Times website. I was perplexed to find that neither the Fall River public school district or the city’s Atlantis Charter School were included the paper’s breakdown of test scores for SouthCoast communities. Although, they do list Fall River’s vocational technical high school. Turning to the article “Latest MCAS results a mixed bag for Greater Fall River schools,” in the Fall River Herald, I found New Bedford had been omitted entirely.

New Bedford and Fall River are the largest population centers in the region. Demographically, these cities have no equal in the SouthCoast outside of each other. You could compare the MCAS scores of Fairhaven’s 1,980 public school student population to New Bedford’s 12,616 enrolled, but it does little when you are trying to inform the conversation around educational policy-making in the SouthCoast’s largest urban areas. The elements that produce high test scores in a town might not be possible to implement in a neighboring city with 6 times the test takers. This is why it is essential when talking about MCAS achievements, and when searching for best practices in education policy in general, for the conversation to be between all the communities in the SouthCoast, and not just limited to a New Bedford-centric, or a Fall River-centric analysis.

To allow for easy comparisons, Fall River and New Bedford’s public schools, greater regional vocational technical high schools, and charter schools are displayed in the graphs below with each city side by side and state-wide results overlaid. You can scroll over the bar to reveal each data point’s Composite Performance Index (CPI). The CPI uses a 100-point index as a means of interpreting the MCAS Proficiency Index, for evaluating student performance on the standard MCAS exam, and the MCAS-Alt Index, used for the MCAS Alternative Assessment. The numbers are calculated separately, by student, for each subject and grade level by the Massachusetts Department of Education and make for easy comparisons between cities and the state-wide average.

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Looking at the data, we can see, for instance, that high school students in Fall River are outscoring their New Bedford counterparts. New Bedford High School was recently designated a “Level 4” school by the state, a move which gives new superintendent Pia Durkin the power to quickly make changes to the underperforming school. When looking for new approaches, it may be worthwhile, in this case, to see if what’s being done right in Fall River can fix what’s wrong in New Bedford.

Spinning the Facts

Katya Starostina, Graduate Research Assistant, Urban Initiative

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) provides a plethora of useful data on school districts in Massachusetts, from student academic growth and attendance to achievement gap and finance. In looking over the data and charts representing the data, something that stands out is how they compare. For example, the following chart made by DESE represents percent net school spending above foundation budget for New Bedford and Fall River school districts against the state average. At a glance it would appear that New Bedford and Fall River are relatively close, with a slight decrease towards the middle, both below the state average. All three lines appear fairly level, without drastic changes from year to year.


Next examine the following chart made using the same data. With a smaller scale and thinner lines, we can see that lines have significant dips. Also, this chart clearly shows that both New Bedford and Fall River fall before 0% for several years. This can be hardly noticed at the chart above.


Unfortunately this trend can be found throughout all data representation on the DESE website. Most charts are presented with a scale much larger than needed that conveniently makes data appear closer together. Using thick lines takes away precision and makes drastic changes appear less extreme. In his article, Uwe E. Reinhardt calls it siffing: Structuring Factual Information Felicity. “People who sif accurately present judiciously selected facts that are auditable and valid, but they then structure these basic facts in a way that conjures up false inferences in the beholder’s mind.”

Whether data is presented in this way intentionally or not, the decision or non-decision to do so certainly makes an impact on the conclusions policymakers come to upon observing the data. It is assumed that an analysis of the data has been performed, therefore most readers would not take the extra step to compare numbers to the chart to ensure their accurate representation. In particular, readers looking over the general trend rather than specific data points may assume that there are no significant differences for school districts from year to year on the first chart presented, when in reality they have been concealed by the appearance of the data on the chart.

What’s important to remember is that graphs can be manipulated in many ways. Consequently, it is essential to pay attention to factors like scale and graph type to get an accurate picture of the data presented, rather than what is shown. Unfortunately, statistical data representation can be used to convey a story that doesn’t quite align with the data presented.

September project update

New developments this month include a new graduate assistant, new (and renewed) collaborations with UMass Dartmouth faculty and their students, and even a new project to announce. Read on:

1) SouthCoast health planning dashboard

If you haven’t noticed, 2013 is the year of public health for the Urban Initiative. This is an exciting direction for us, and not only because health is so closely connected to every other urban issue we study, particularly in cities like New Bedford and Fall River. We’re also excited to have the opportunity to work with group of individuals and organizations that collaborate genuinely and effectively to promote better health outcomes for SouthCoast residents. And as we know, collaboration matters!

Our newest health-related project will be to work with a great team of regional health organizations (headed up by the indefatigable Dave Weed of Partners for a Healthier Community) to develop an information-sharing tool that will build the capacity of our region when it comes to understanding and acting upon health needs and opportunities. The main feature of the site will be a tool that allows partner organizations to share local health data and resources in a timely and interactive way, serving as a “dashboard” to guide decision-making. Stay tuned for more updates and let us know if you’re interested in learning more about joining this project!

2) Taunton HOPE VI evaluation

This month has us drafting our first annual report on the progress of the Taunton Housing Authority’s HOPE VI project, which will include data related to the city, the neighborhood, and the original residents of the former Fairfax Gardens housing development.

3) LifeWork evaluation

The Women’s Fund has just enrolled the first cohort of participants in its pilot program, LifeWork. Over the next few months, the Urban Initiative will work with LifeWork program staff to collect baseline data on participants so that we can establish a baseline against which to measure individual and collective progress toward the program’s goals of advancing educational attainment, improving employment status and earnings, and helping women on a path to financial self-sufficiency.

4) College access

We’re currently working with our team of high school interns to finalize their report on findings related to college access in the SouthCoast, and we’ll soon be announcing a report release event.

5) SouthCoast Hospitals Community Needs Assessment

We’ve been working with our colleagues of the UMass Dartmouth Center for Policy Analysis to develop the community needs assessment for the SouthCoast Hospitals system. The assessment includes data on health status and social determinants of health for the region spanning Swansea to Wareham.

6) NB Line

We’re currently working on reporting our findings from the second year of evaluating the NB Line, a shuttle system being piloted in downtown New Bedford by the city’s National Park.

7) Faculty/student collaborations

This semester, we’ve been asked to identify community-based research projects for students in Professor Sarah Cosgrove’s Urban Economics course as well as students in Professor Gloria de Sa’s Sociology course. We got a lot of great ideas from our community partners for projects that will build students’ skills, help them apply their coursework, and develop a better understanding of needs and opportunities in Fall River and New Bedford. We look forward to updating you on the projects these students have chosen to take on!

New Graduate Research Assistant Katya


Born and raised in Russia, I moved to New Hampshire with my family at the age of 13. I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, with a Materials Science and Engineering major and Hispanic Studies minor. Through teaching and mentoring inner-city youth, I developed a passion for improving the public school system. My last year of college I spent in the Dominican Republic studying language and culture and teaching English to women involved in sex tourism. This summer I spent with DC Government at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which gave me great exposure to education policy on state government level. I am excited to embark on my second year of the MPP program and work on meaningful projects in urban policy on behalf of the Urban Initiative. I also enjoy salsa dancing and playing indoor and beach volleyball.