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Village Schools

Interpreting Yellow Springs Schools’ report card

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Ohio released its 2014–2015 school report cards last month, which are measures of student and school performance based on an array of state tests. Yellow Springs schools did well, but district leaders believe the scores, though significantly higher than state averages and among the best in the region, have limited value in reflecting student learning or guiding changes to pedagogy. That was the message from Superintendent Mario Basora on Monday, interviewed about the test results, which were released by the state Feb. 25.

Those results have gotten little fanfare in Yellow Springs; the topic was not discussed at the March 10 school board meeting.

“We’ve been talking about the results with faculty, but not with the community,” Basora said on Monday. “We did well but these test scores are, we think, frankly invalid, and we don’t think they accurately measure what we think is important. They’re not the ultimate measure of success and we don’t want to convey that they are.”

Yellow Springs schools scored A’s and B’s on all key measures. By this light, it led Greene County schools, though other historically high-performing districts in the county, such as Beavercreek and Bellbrook, scored comparably or better on certain measures.

On one leading indicator, called the Performance Index, which is a weighted measure of the test results of every student, Yellow Springs schools received a score of 81.2 percent, or a B. It was one of just 10 districts in the region to receive this grade, according to the Dayton Daily News. In the Dayton area, only Oakwood schools received an A.

But Basora pointed out that one problem with this particular measure is that students who opt out of testing count against the overall score, artificially dragging it down. The results show that 1.4 percent of Yellow Springs students — about eight or nine students, Basora said -— opted out last year. Opt-out students tend to be higher performing students, he added, yet because they’re weighted as “untested” students in the index, they actually depress the overall score. In light of the opt-out movement that Basora said is gathering steam around the state, district officials in Yellow Springs and elsewhere are lobbying to change this weighting.

On another key measure, Indicators Met, which reflects the percent of students who passed state tests, Yellow Springs schools scored 93.8 percent, or an A. At least 80 percent of students must pass the state tests in each subject area for the schools to receive credit for the indicator. In all but one instance, Yellow Springs students scored substantially better than state averages and in most cases better than a group of “similar districts,” as defined by the state. Reading is a notable strength for Yellow Springs students across all grades.

“One thing these data do show is that Yellow Springs is significantly higher than state averages,” said Basora.

However, the latest test results seem to indicate a gap between Mills Lawn School’s achievement scores, measured in terms of Performance Index and Indicators Met, which were C and B, respectively, and those of McKinney Middle/Yellow Springs High School, B and A, respectively. The subject area data for Indicators Met reveals somewhat lower scores at the elementary level and higher ones in similar subjects at the high school, a pattern that Basora said is reflected in schools across the state.

But this isn’t necessarily a true performance gap, said Basora. Rather, he and other educators believe tests are more rigorous in the earlier grades, and “I would postulate that the need to pass students in order to graduate” sets the bar lower for high school tests.

“You can’t make apples to apples comparisons” across grades, he emphasized. “The tests are different, the difficulty and scoring are different.”

On a student progress measure called Value Added, which captures how much students in grades 4–8 students improve in a year (a year’s worth of learning, or more, or less), Yellow Springs earned an overall grade of A. Progress for gifted students in the district was also graded A, while progress for students with disabilities and students in the lowest 20 percent of achievement were each graded C, similar to the past two years. Other high-performing districts in Greene County had C’s, D’s and F’s on these measures, despite having strong achievement grades overall.

Yellow Springs received a B for its 4-year graduation rate (92 percent) and an A for its five-year graduation rate (96.4 percent), scores that were on par with or slightly lower than other high-performing districts in the county. Both rates were significantly higher than state averages.

Despite Yellow Springs’ overall strong showing, Basora expressed frustration with the report card system and the volume of tests underlying it. The limitations of the report cards are severe, he said.

For example, because both the mix of tests and the way tests are scored has changed from year to year, it is difficult for schools to reliably benchmark progress using the report cards, he contended. Although Ohio has used the same letter grade system for the past three years -— it previously used descriptors such as “excellent with distinction,” “excellent” and “effective” — what’s actually being rated “has changed dramatically … the measures have changed and the metrics have changed,” he said. Comparing this year’s data to previous years’ is “apples to oranges.”

Basora added that Yellow Springs schools rely instead on “quick assessment” tests from a private company called STAR, which are administered through the year to measure student progress in reading and math and allow teachers to develop timely interventions based on the results.

More broadly, Basora said district leaders believe that standardized tests of any kind are ultimately poor or insufficient measures of student achievement, especially related to young people’s readiness for college and life. The district’s ongoing efforts to replace some standardized testing with alternative assessments is related to that  belief.

“Do students know how to collaborate and communicate? Do they know how to be creative? Are they good citizens? These are just as important to us as core academics,” he said.

Yet, reliable and relevant or not, state test scores can have an impact on the community.

“The real danger is that the community and folks outside the community will see [the scores] as gospel truth,” said Basora. And this perception can, in turn, affect property values, which may rise in response to good scores or drop in reaction to poorer scores, he explained.

“This is probably the strongest affect of these scores on the Yellow Springs community.”

Asked if score fluctuations have had an impact on open enrollment, Basora said district officials have not seen a correlation. Students opt into Yellow Springs schools at least in part because the district actually deemphasizes testing, he said, so open enrollment families may be less likely to put stock in schools’ scores, even good ones.

One final area of interest on the latest report card concerns school revenue sources. According to the report, Yellow Springs schools derive nearly 60 percent of their funds from local sources — largely property taxes — while Ohio districts overall draw only 40 percent from this source. And Ohio districts in aggregate reflect higher levels of state and federal funding (46 and 7.5 percent, respectively) versus Yellow Springs (31.8 and 1.6 percent). State funding is tied specifically to property values, said Basora, and Yellow Springs is considered a “high wealth district” based on relatively high property values. This status “has pushed the burden onto local taxpayers,” he said. Yet more than 30 percent of Yellow Springs students are presently enrolled in the federal free or reduced lunch program, he added.

“We’re trying to talk to the state about changing that ‘high wealth’ status, which doesn’t necessarily match where we actually are,” said Basora.

To see report card results, visit http://reportcard.education.ohio.gov .

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Interpreting Yellow Springs Schools’ report card

by Audrey Hackett