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School board meeting— State report card discussed

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While Yellow Springs received mixed grades on the 2016–2017 Ohio school report card, district leaders remain skeptical that the report card system delivers meaningful data about local schools.

“Ignoring it would be a mistake, but overly highlighting it in comparison to everything else that’s going on really doesn’t tell us a lot,” board member Sylvia Ellison said at the Nov. 9 regular school board meeting, in response to a presentation by District Superintendent Mario Basora on the local results.

The state-issued school report card assesses all public school districts in Ohio on six main components and several subcomponents, based largely on students’ performance on state tests. The report card data was released Sept. 14 by the Ohio Department of Education. The November meeting was the first time the board discussed the local results.

Basora had previously presented, at the board’s Oct. 12 regular meeting, the district’s own “Quality Profile,” which highlights student projects and activities, teacher recognition and other information.

As previously reported in the News, Yellow Springs received component grades on the state report card ranging from an “A” in graduation rate, with 100 percent of local students graduating in four years, to a “D” in “gap closing,” a measure of how well schools close performance gaps in certain demographic groups.

Rounding out the local scores, the district received “B”s on both K–3 literacy and “prepared for success,” which measures how well students are prepared for college and work, and “C”s on both student achievement and progress. Yellow Springs led Greene County in its “prepared for success” score, according to Basora.

Board member Steve Conn expressed frustration with the report card’s lack of specific guidance to help schools improve.

“What are we supposed to do with this?” he asked. “There’s no value to it in terms of thinking how to get better.”

And according to Board President Aïda Merhemic, other school districts share Yellow Springs’ frustration.

“A majority of school districts are up in arms” over the results, she said.

Specific criticisms

In his presentation to the board, Basora offered a range of specific criticisms of how school report card scores are calculated and presented.

On one widely reported measure called “performance index,” Yellow Springs earned a “C” and ranked 197th out of Ohio’s 608 public school districts, or within the top third. Nearby district Oakwood, often cited as a comparison to Yellow Springs schools, ranked fifth on that same measure. The performance index, a subcomponent of the overall achievement score, is a composite measure of the achievement of all students in a district on each state test.

Citing the performance index, Basora said that recent changes in state tests make it impossible to draw valid year-to-year comparisons.

He presented a chart showing state averages on the performance index from 2001, the year the index was introduced, to the present. Rises in the state averages from 2001 to 2014 were followed by a drop in 2015, when the state changed to different tests. The state changed tests again in 2016, resulting in another drop. But the state average actually rose this year, to 84.1, despite tougher scoring on this year’s tests.

Yellow Springs schools followed those recent trends. The district’s performance index rose from 74.4 in 2016 to 77.8 in 2017, despite the tougher scoring. The district score still lags the state average by several percentage points.

A Department of Education document discussing statewide results acknowledges the recent “transition period” in testing, and identifies the 2015–2016 scores as the “new baseline.”

The local district received its worst grade on “indicators met,” another subcomponent of the overall achievement score. Yellow Springs scored an “F” on this subcomponent, which measures the percent of students who pass state tests by scoring an 80 percent or higher.

But the vast majority of Ohio districts also received an “F,” indicating a problem with the tests and not with districts, according to Basora. Eighty percent of districts received an “F” on “indicators met,” while 90 percent received a “D” or “F,” he said.

“Is the problem the child or is the problem the assessment?” he asked.

One aspect of the problem relates to the fact that students at a given grade level may take tests at a higher grade level. For example, in the case of Yellow Springs, about half of eighth-graders took the ninth-grade math test and nearly all passed with 80 percent or higher. But those scores don’t count toward the overall eighth-grade score, leaving a small number of eighth-grade students as the basis for results at that grade level. This year, just 34.5 percent of that remaining group of eighth-graders passed the eighth-grade math test with an 80 percent or higher.

This kind of problem ripples through the “indicators met” subcomponent for Yellow Springs and other districts, according to Basora.

On the “gap closing” component, which looks at the performance of certain demographic subgroups in math, language arts and graduation rates, Yellow Springs showed some significant gaps in achievement, scoring a “D” in this area, up from an “F” last year. Subgroups measured by the state include low-income students, disabled students and African-American and multiracial students.

“It’s definitely a concern of mine,” Basora said of apparent achievement gaps in the district.

However, most of Yellow Springs’ subgroups are small in size, hovering near the state’s minimum of 30 individuals, and that creates some problems for the validity of comparing scores across groups, according to Basora.

Yellow Springs showed substantial progress on another report card component, K–3 literacy, receiving a “B” for its efforts to improve the proficiency of struggling readers. Last year, the local district received an “F” on this component.

But according to Mills Lawn Principal Matt Housh, state K–3 literacy scores do not adequately reflect the district’s efforts with young readers. The state score is based on the progress of those students put on special reading improvement plans because of low reading scores on state tests. Which students are included on those plans can dramatically affect the district’s score, according to Basora. Housh said the district also tracks reading progress using other measures.

“Our kids made progress all along,” Housh said at the meeting.

Next steps

The Ohio school report card is designed to spur conversations about performance and help districts improve, according to a recent statement from Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria.

But Basora at the Nov. 9 meeting cautioned against reading too much into the report card results.

The local district has de-emphasized high-stakes testing in favor of educating the “whole child,” he said. He described learning in the district as a “failing forward culture,” meaning students make progress through hands-on trial and error. By contrast, state testing represents a “gotcha culture” for students and schools, according to Basora.

The state uses report cards to “rank order schools and then shame them publicly by getting newspapers to report on” the results, he said.

“We’ve chosen consciously to think differently about that system,” he added.

As for the appropriate response to this year’s scores, Basora said he believed Yellow Springs should continue to de-emphasize standardized testing, in contrast to some schools that are “teaching to the test” and adopting other measures in order to improve their results.

“We can get a school that can get ‘A’s,” he said. “I don’t think Yellow Springs wants to be that kind of school.”

Basora also cautioned that it was premature to draw conclusions from the state data, particularly given the lack of a consistent basis for comparison in recent years.

“I don’t think you take one year’s data and make mass judgments from it,” he said.

However, district leaders will keep tabs on Yellow Springs scores over the next several years as the report card system evolves.

“If we have two or three more years of this, we’ll look deeper into it,” Basora said of areas where the district has received lower scores.

In other Nov. 9 school board business:

• McKinney Middle/Yellow Springs High School engineering instructor Steve Bleything presented the work of eighth-grade pre-engineering students, who recently designed and built compact furniture for the school, including various kinds of tables, nooks and shelves. The students used industry-level CAD software to design the pieces, and built prototypes and actual furniture in the school’s maker space.

Bleything teaches a year-long pre-engineering course to all McKinney Middle eighth-graders, and two high school engineering courses. The classes are part of a new engineering collaboration with Greene County Career Center, or GCCC, which took the place of a previous agricultural program offered in collaboration with the center.

• The board unanimously adopted a change to district policy that eliminates class rank, except when requested by colleges and universities for admission.

• The board also unanimously voted to accept two donations to the district: an anonymous donation of $1,000, and a donation of $2,750 from Miguel Espinosa, owner of local food truck Miguel’s Tacos. Both donations will be used toward the upcoming eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C.

• The board unanimously approved several supplemental positions, each with a one-year limited contract for the 2017–2018 school year. These include: eighth-grade trip advisors Jaime Adoff, Jack Hatert, Karleen Materne, Cameron McCoy and Lorrie Sparrow-Knapp (compensation not to exceed $1,764); senior citizens coordinator Christy Nielsen ($1,246); four tournament-related positions, including tournament site director Nate Baker ($200), ticket taker Roberta Perry, ticket seller Stephanie Harshaw-Butler and announcer Tim Sherwood ($100 each); and substitute teacher Dianne Light ($90/day, $45/half day). The board also unanimously approved a leave of absence request from custodial staff member James Waulk.

District Treasurer Dawn Bennett reported that the district’s third-quarter income tax payment rose by 8.7 percent over last October. The schools received $997,509 in local income tax as of Oct. 31, 2017. In other updates, Bennett noted that the district is in the fifth and final year of its service contract with food service provider Sodexo, and will be issuing a request for proposal, or RFP, for school food service. Bennett also reported the receipt of two grants from the Yellow Springs Endowment for Education, or YSEE, and one from the Charlotte Drake committee. The YSEE funding includes a $533.41 grant to teacher Maggie Davis for books focused on diversity and cultural sensitivity, and a $2,000 grant to teacher Elisabeth Simon for puppeteering supplies. The Charlotte Drake committee awarded $300 to a student-run chess club.

• Reports from the district’s principals and development director were deferred until the December regular board meeting to make time for the superintendent’s presentations.

• Prior to the public portion of the meeting, the school board met in executive session to discuss the evaluation of District Treasurer Bennett.

The next regular school board meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 14, at 7 p.m., at Mills Lawn School.

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