Results from the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test administered last spring show a steep drop in performance in science in most Vineyard elementary schools.

But test scores this year only tell part of the story, at least on the Vineyard, which participated in a pilot program for a new test last year. Last year Massachusetts was one of 10 states to embrace the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test, and the only state to offer both tests. As a result, Island schools had a foot in both testing worlds.

MCAS test results were released on Sept. 24. PARCC scores will not be available until later this fall. Because Island schools were participating in a pilot PARCC program, neither MCAS nor PARCC scores will count toward state evaluations this year.

“Every year, MCAS scores mean for us a chance to look at what we are doing well and what areas we need to improve,” said Matt D’Andrea, superintendant of schools. “It’s a good way to hold ourselves accountable. Teachers look at it and make adjustments to meet the needs of the students.”

Students in grades three through eight took the PARCC tests for English language arts and mathematics, but because PARCC does not include a science portion, students in grades five and eight took the MCAS science portion of the test.

In general, student science scores declined this year in both grades. The one high point was the Tisbury School which increased from 66 to 79 per cent for proficient or higher for fifth graders, and from 52 to 60 per cent for proficient or higher for eighth graders.

Oak Bluffs experienced the steepest decline. Fifth grade scores declined from 66 to 20 per cent for proficient or higher. Eighth grade also declined, from 77 to 55 per cent for proficient or higher.

West Tisbury increased in the proficient or higher categories from 46 to 68 per cent in fifth grade science and declined from 78 to 46 per cent in eighth grade. Edgartown scores declined in proficient or higher from 67 to 39 per cent in fifth grade and from 73 to 59 per cent in eighth grade. The Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School decreased in proficient or higher from 75 to 58 per cent for fifth graders and increased from 61 to 73 per cent for eighth graders.

The Chilmark School was not part of the evaluation last year; the school includes kindergarten through fifth grade and the fifth grade sample size was too small.

“Each year we are comparing a different group of kids,” said Mr. D’Andrea, noting how scores can fluctuate each year even when many factors in terms of the teaching do not change. “The state is making the transition to a new set of science and technology standards,” he added. The transition began a few years ago and Island schools have been working to implement them, creating more flux in the science curriculum.

“It’s a good time for teachers to look at where we are going and where we have been,” the superintendent said.

High school students in grade 10 took the MCAS test in English language arts, math and science. The tests are required at the state level for graduation, said Richard Smith, assistant superintendant for schools.

“MCAS has been here for 14 years, and these children started with that test,” Mr. Smith said, explaining the decision to stay with MCAS for the high school students.

The results of the 10th grade test were nearly identical to last year, with 96 per cent of students achieving a proficient or higher in English language arts, 87 per cent in math and 85 per cent in science.

At the charter school, sophomore students scored in the 94th percentile for proficient or higher in both English language arts and math, and 92 per cent for science.

Speaking about the steep drop in science scores, Mr. Smith said there are many variables to contend with each year.

“In the end we look at these scores and say, what can we control and we focus on that,” he said.

One of the main variables for Island elementary schools is small class size. In Oak Bluffs, where Mr. Smith was the principal before becoming assistant superintendant this year, the class size in 2014 was 30 students in grade five and 29 students in grade eight. In such a small sample population, just a few students can make a big change percentage-wise, he said.

The number of non-native English speakers in a class, how many students receive free or reduced lunch, even just movement around the schools can affect a class. For example, the Oak Bluffs eighth grade class jumped from 20 students to 30 students as the year progressed.

“Some came from off-Island, others from within the Island,” Mr. Smith said.

But perhaps the biggest question mark last year was the addition of the PARCC tests into the curriculum.

“There was a lot of anxiety around the new test,” Mr. Smith said.

While MCAS is a written test, PARCC is taken electronically, which was one of the reasons the Vineyard adopted the new test. But that required additional preparation.

“Typing is key,” said John Stevens, principal of the Edgartown School. “It is a top priority in computer class now.”

John Rizzo, principal of the Oak Bluffs school, began work this fall, taking over from Mr. Smith. Previously he headed up a school in Springfield, which faced a much different issue. Schools around the commonwealth are ranked on a progress and performance index ranging from one to five, with four and five considered failing. All seven schools on the Island are high achieving schools. Based on last year’s rankings, Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Chilmark are level one schools, with Tisbury, West Tisbury, the regional high school and the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School at level two.

Mr. Rizzo’s previous school had a level four ranking.

“We had 100 per cent of our kids on reduced or free lunch,” he said.

While giving high marks to the teachers at his previous school, he has been amazed at the dedication of his Vineyard co-workers.

“In all my 30 years in education, I have never seen so many teachers show up to work on Sundays,” he said.

Mr. Rizzo said that due to the low ranking at Springfield the focus had to be “only about the data.” But that does not tell the whole story, he said.

“My focus is on two things,” he said. “Student learning, the cognitive and what’s in their hearts, and quality teaching.”

But there are intangibles each year, he stressed, that the data doesn’t show. There is also something he referred to as “the joy meter.”

“It goes hand in hand with the rigor,” he said, and is essential to achieving real long term learning.

“We’ve got work to do,” Mr. Rizzo added. “But there is great teaching going on here. That I can attest to.”

Mr. Rizzo also had praise for his predecessor, Mr. Smith. “His loving hand, and his rigorous hand, are still felt here,” Mr. Rizzo said.

Although there is a strong indication that the Vineyard school system will fully shift to the PARCC tests, the final decision will not be made until later this fall. The state board will make a decision on Nov. 17 and the Vineyard school system will decide soon after that, Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Smith said originally he thought the state, including the Vineyard, would adopt the new test, but following controversy last spring, the outcome is now less certain.

Originally 20 states had decided to switch to the PARCC tests, but after picketing by parents, teachers and students, along with many students around the country opting out of taking the test at all, the number dropped to 10.

Mr. Smith said that whichever test the state decides upon, Vineyard schools will be in a good position. “If indeed the commonwealth compels us to do PARCC, the kids will have seen it.”