After several years of “good standing,” four schools in Weakley County are now on the state’s “target” list due in part to new grading criteria issued by the Tennessee State Department of Education in its aggressive program, Race to the Top.
As the state tries to raise the bar and bring the performance of all Tennessee students and teachers closer to national standards, schools in Weakley County and across the state are finding that what used to be good enough, is no longer acceptable progress.
The state released its new report cards on Friday, measuring how individual districts and schools around the state are faring under the new tougher standards. Of the 1,653 schools in the state of Tennessee, only 78 percent met Adequate Yearly Progress standards (AYP) in areas mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. These include academic subjects like reading and math as well as graduation and attendance rates.
Not making enough yearly progress puts schools on a “target” list which is the first step down from “good standing,” a slap on the wrist with no disciplinary actions. Schools are allowed one year to correct themselves but if they don’t they are put on the “high priority” list which does require the school to take specified steps.
This year there were 186 high priority schools in the state, up from 144 this year, still better than what state officials were fearing with the new standards. If schools get worse instead of better, they are eventually “reconstituted,” or taken over by the state.
Specifically, three Weakley County high schools, Westview, Dresden and Greenfield fell short of state expectations of 90 percent in the number of students they graduate each year, with Westview only graduating 79 percent of its students after four years. This put them on the “target” list.
At Martin Middle, sub groups of students fell short of requirements. Students with disabilities did not meet standards in language arts and math and African American students fell short in math. Overall in the state, education officials worry that the achievement gap between white students and African Americans is widening, not narrowing.
But the report card also reveals problem areas outside of federal reporting requirements that teachers and students need to address, acting like a diagnostic tool for school, teacher and student improvement.
Also, by comparing individual school report cards in the county, parents can see which schools have better records on state achievement tests. Since students now have to get more problems correct to do well on their standardized tests, that also means lower scores for individual students. This year students will be bringing home lower scores on state tests like TCAP and End of Course tests like English II, Biology and Algebra I. What used to be considered “proficient” or close to grade level might now be considered basic or below basic.
Students who were pleased that the state ruled them “advanced” in the past, may find that they are now considered less than that. This is because the “teacher” or state is grading harder; it takes more to “pass” the test now. And the “cut score” will be even higher next year.
Besides lower grades on the state tests, students may get a hit on their own school report card as 15 percent of their second semester grade will come from their score on the state test. This will go up to 25 percent soon.
“Overall,” says Randy Frazier, Director of Weakley County Schools, “the report card is better than anticipated on achievement” as county officials were “braced” for disappointing scores under the new standards.
Frazier says that math was already known to be a weak point and teachers are putting in more development time on that subject with the new Race to the Top funding.
The district will be getting a little over $1 million from this federal program over a four year period out of a half billion going to Tennessee schools.
Only 58 percent of high school students in Weakley County are considered to be proficient or advanced in math, still higher than the 49 percent rate in the state, but disappointing to students who want to be college-ready. That ranges from a low of 55 percent at Westview to 68 percent at Greenfield.
Frazier thinks that the new figures also show that reading, which was a “strength in the past,”might also need some “across the board” attention. The director of Weakley County Schools says that educators in the past have considered reading to be a K-8 subject and they need to find more ways to improve high school reading.
Overall Weakley County still fares well compared to other schools in West Tennessee and the entire state. The number of K-12 students who made scores of proficient or advanced is still above state levels in math and reading/language.
Graduation rate, the number that put three Weakley County high schools on a “target” list, is a hard area to tackle says Frazier.
Students who go on to pass their GED or who transfer out of the county, are still counted as negatives on the graduation rate.
Nevertheless, says Frazier, school officials will be tracking students earlier, as freshmen and sophomores, to improve retention rates. They will also be taking a look at those who have left to identify why students are leaving before graduating.
“We want to graduate every student,” says Frazier.
Teachers and administrators look at the report card as a diagnostic tool to tell them what subject areas, what students and what teachers need to be targeted for improvement. Scores called “value- added” track students’ progress from year to year and identify which teachers were able to help students achieve more progress.
At Martin Middle School, the school received an F in value-added categories in math, reading language and science, under the new higher standards, as opposed to a C the previous year. At Sharon, K-8 value added scores in reading/language, science and math were also failing.
Lower value-added scores were expected according to state officials “as teachers adjust to higher expectations of how much a student should learn in one year.”
“We have upped the ante so much more dramatically,” State Commission of Education Bruce Opie told reporters on Friday. “The standards are so much more rigorous.”
In the end says Dan Wall, Director of Assessment at the State Department of Education, “students will be better able to compete locally, nationally and internationally in a 21st Century environment.”
On Jan. 3, teachers and administrators across the county spent the day interpreting this value-added data to determine how they could improve over the second semester, says Frazier.
School officials in the county were already nervously watching ACT scores, which in Greenfield and Dresden were just under a state composite average of 19.6. Westview averaged the highest at 20.2.
This was the first year that all students were required to take the ACT. Just over 200 county seniors the previous year took the standardized while just over 300 took it in 2010 says Frazier.
Since the federal NCLB Act does not put these scores on its watch list, Weakley County high schools were not put on the target list for this reason.
But, administrators are trying to bring scores up nonetheless through targeted programs even though Frazier says “a lot of children are not on this path (for college).”
The new report card puts “pressure on all of us” says Frazier.
Everyone, not only state officials, but parents and teachers can take a look at how individual schools and teachers are performing in content areas.
Frazier prefers to cast a positive light on the new developments.
“At least we know what the targets are now.”
He added that he is confident that professional development and other programs are being put in place to take on the challenges ahead.