ISTEP scores are in for this year: All county schools continue excellence

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The state of Indiana has released school scores for the state-mandated ISTEP tests that were administered in the fall, and again the schools of the Switzerland County School Corporation have excelled.

“The scores are very good,” superintendent Tracy Caddell said. “I am very pleased about a number of things. We continue to be above the state average for ‘No Child Left Behind’ as a corporation for the fourth year in a row, and I’m very pleased with that. The whole group — K-12 — I think we’re doing well.”

As has become tradition, the third grade test scores in both Switzerland County Elementary and Jefferson-Craig Elementary were outstanding.

At Jefferson-Craig, 100-percent of the third graders taking the exam passed both portions by scoring over the state standard.

“Obviously that stands out,” the superintendent said. “Both schools did exceptionally well.”

The superintendent said that progress also continues to be made at both the middle school and the high school; and that the schools continue to monitor both state and national educational guidelines for evaluating the test scores.

“We are working under two sets of guidelines,” Superintendent Caddell said. “At the state level, we are being held to Public Law #221; and at the national level, the standards are set under ‘No Child Left Behind’. We continue to score very well at both levels.”

At the state level, PL #221 uses a variety of indicators to establish a “cut score” for the entire state. The superintendent said that considerations such as the percentage of free/reduced meal program participants; gender; minorities; economic levels; and other things all play a role in establishing the state’s cut score — the score that the state expects the average student to attain in order to be progressing educationally at an acceptable level.

At the federal level, each year the U.S. Department of Education under the guidelines of “No Child Left Behind”, issues an AYP — Anticipated Yearly Progress — for schools.

The federal government develops a large variety of “break out” groups that may or may not be applied to a specific school district. Those groups are based on each school corporation, and can vary depending on the schools.

The federal government’s AYP groups that apply to the Switzerland County School Corporation may or may not apply to a school corporation in another part of the state — for example, Carmel near Indianapolis. That way each school corporation is judged on the makeup of the student population it serves.

But there is a catch.

“A school corporation must pass all of the groups that the federal government assigns to it in order to pass as a corporation,” Tracy Caddell said. “There may be 30 groups and you can pass 29 of them, but you still fail at the federal level, so it’s very important.”

Making matters more confusing is that — because of the different standards — a school corporation could pass at the state level and fail at the federal level — or vise versa.

An example of this difference is that at the state level, a student must attend at least 126 days during the previous school year for their scores to be counted as part of this school corporation.

This is a safeguard against students being judged as part of this school corporation who have not been educated by this corporation.

At the state the level is 126 days to be counted, but at the federal level a student must attend at least 162 days to count.

A student who attended a number of days between those two? They are counted at the state level, but not at the federal level.

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In English, 73.3 percent of students in the Switzerland County School Corporation who took the test passed the state level. The overall state average was 70.4 percent of students.

In math, 77.2 percent of local students exceeded the state expected score; while across the state, 73 percent of students passed the math portion.

There were some interesting statistics in groups, particularly with boys and girls in English.

Among boys taking the English portion, 64.2 percent exceeded the state average. Across Indiana, 65.3 percent passed this portion. The girls was another story, as Switzerland County females passed the English portion at a rate of 83.1 percent; while the state average for girls was just 75.8 percent.

“It’s interesting that males did significantly worse than females in language arts,” the superintendent said. “It’s not just a problem here, but across the entire state of Indiana. We know that we have that problem here, especially at the middle school and high school levels.”

The middle school recently tried to address the problem by splitting their language arts classes by gender, allowing the boys and girls classes to select reading materials that more matched their specific interests.

“I believe that the gender classes at the middle school will help us bring these scores up,” Superintendent Caddell said. “It’s still too early to fully judge the affect of the gender classes, but I think they will help in the coming years.”

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As he pours over pages and pages of data that has been generated by the tests, Superintendent Caddell says that he has a very simple formula for interpreting what’s going on here.

“Here’s the cut scores, here’s the average,” the superintendent said. “I simply look to see if our kids did at least as well as the average kid in the state of Indiana. Our kids do that and better year after year, and that’s what I’m concerned about. Our kids excel against the state averages, and I’m pleased with those scores.

“We’re meeting the grade,” Tracy Caddell continued. “When our residents pick up the paper and read this article, they are going to simply want to know if our kids are at least doing as well as other kids around the state — and the answer is that we are and better.”

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That said, there are still some concerns on the mind of the superintendent.

“Our high school students are not doing as well on standardized tests as other schools in the state,” he said. “They are exceeding the average, but we would like to see even more progress. Both elementaries continue to do well, and the middle school is doing well and getting better.”

Making matters even more critical at the high school level is that the 10th grade ISTEP exam is also the Graduation Qualifying Exam (GQE). All students in Indiana high schools must pass both the math and language arts portions of the GQE or they are not allowed to graduate unless they qualify for a state waiver.

At the high school, the math scores among 10th graders taking the exam were particularly low. with just 52-percent passing the GQE math, compared to 65-percent statewide.

“We’re going back over all of the data to really analyze what’s going on,” Tracy Caddell said. “We have been looking at the 10th grade students who didn’t pass one or both portions of the GQE, and we’re looking to see if those students were in our school system when they were in the third grade. What we’re finding is that one-third of our sophomores were not in our school system as third graders. If you don’t get the basics in those K-3 years, it’s about impossible to get caught up. We’re finding that to be significant.”

Another area of concern here are the scores of special education students at the high school. This year, of the 39 special education students at the high school, only four passed the math portion of the test; and in English only two passed.

“We’ve got to rethink how we teach special education classes at the high school,” the superintendent said.

Corporation wide, 41-percent of special education students passed the English portion of the exam; and 58-percent of special education students passed the math portion. That’s 10-percentage points higher than the state average, so with other levels achieving high marks, he hopes to focus on bringing the high school scores into line.

Students do have several attempts to pass both portions of the GQE, and if they don’t there is still the opportunity to be granted a state waiver.

Here in Switzerland County, getting a waiver is a bit easier, because the school board has adopted the state’s “Core 40” course of study as the basis for all high school students. The state says that if a student goes through the Core 40 curriculum and attains a grade point average of at least a C (2.0) in all required courses, then they will be granted a waiver.

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Other concerns being looked at by the superintendent include the decline in student enrollment — which could translate to fewer state and federal dollars in the future.

Tracy Caddell said that the school system has declined by 50 students since last year; and enrollment numbers have declined by 31 more students since this school year began in August.

Along with state and federal dollars, the superintendent said that there are certain “fixed costs” to operating the school system, regardless of how many students are here.

“You still have to heat the buildings and turn on the lights and run the buses,” the superintendent said. “There are certain bills that will be there regardless of our enrollment numbers, and that concerns me.”

Lending to those numbers is the increase in the number of students being home schooled in the county — up from 11 to 48 over a 10-year period, and those are just the students who are registered with the state, which is not required.

Another factor is the number of Amish families who are moving into the county and buying up farms and homes. Amish families in this area traditionally have their own schools for their children.

“We would certainly welcome the Amish students,” Tracy Caddell said. “In the northern part of the state it is very common for Amish children to attend public schools, particularly elementary schools. That doesn’t happen very often in the southern part of the state, but we would certainly welcome them if they wanted to attend.”

Likewise, the superintendent said that parents who are home schooling students might be interested in having their child attend specific classes in the school, like fine arts or higher level math and science.

“We’ve got two Blue Ribbon elementaries and are striving for excellence at the middle school and high school,” Tracy Caddell said. “I think we have schools that would be attractive to many, many parents.”

— Pat Lanman