To The Point 11-8-12

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FIRST OF ALL, it’s good to be back writing my column again. I could take the time to explain where it’s been the past couple of months, but it involves “newspaper stuff” and deadlines and such, so I’ll just leave it at “It’s good to be back”.

I have to tell you that this column actually started out as a news story, but since news is supposed to present the facts of a situation in a non-bias way, as I gathered information for this story, it quickly became apparent that bias could not be left out of it.

Our subject today are the “grades” that the Indiana Department of Education has given each of the schools in the state. The DOE used the ‘A-F’ model, which we are all familiar with from our days in school, and the state leadership has hailed this grading system as a way to make our schools better.

With that, here are this year’s grades for your Switzerland County Schools:

– Switzerland County High School: D

– Switzerland County Middle School: B

– Switzerland County Elementary School: D

– Jefferson-Craig Elementary School: C

At this point, you may want to round up a posse and head to town with burning torches and pitchforks, but – and there’s always a but when it comes to state and federal governments – there is much, much more to this story that just four grades.

I have the opportunity to meet with school superintendent Mike Jones, school board president Jim Phipps, testing administrator Fred Ross, and principals John Druba, Rhonda Pennington, and Sally Weales on Monday morning. Principal Gregg Goewert had meetings in his school, but he did send an email explaining the information from the high school’s point of view.

As the meeting began, I told the group that we needed to find a way to explain these grades so that the general public could understand it, not using educational terminology that very few can figure out.

As the meeting began and Fred Ross began to lay out test scores and the process that our schools and others go through to provide information that eventually comes out as a letter grade, I quickly began to come up with my own metaphor for this state grading system:

If you’ve ever lived on a farm, you spend time trying not to step in it.

Here, Switzerland County residents, are the straight numbers:

– At Switzerland County High School: a total of 99 students took the state tests in both math and English/language arts. Of those, in math, 68 of the 99 passed the state-set standard. That’s 68.7-percent of those who took it, met or exceeded what the state thought they should do, and six more than who met the state standard when they took the exam as sophomores and as eighth graders.

Of the 99 students taking the English/language arts portion of the state exam, 53 met or exceeded the state expectation. That’s an increase of three students from when this class took the state tests as sophomores; and the same number as when they took the test as eighth graders.

Here’s a big statistic: of the 114 students who started in that class, 96 of them are on schedule to graduate on time. That’s 84.2-percent. So, roughly, for every 100 students who enter our schools, at the end of their school careers, 84 of them are ready to graduate on time. Would we like that to be better? Sure, but it’s still pretty good, when you consider all of the obstacles that kids face as they grow up.

– At Switzerland County Middle School: Again, we have students taking state tests in math and also in English/language arts.

At the middle school, 219 students took the math portion of the exam, and 199 of them (90.9-percent) met or exceeded the state-set standard. That’s right – over 90-percent of them hit or exceeded the mark.

In English/language arts, of those 219 students, 160 of them met or exceeded the state goal, which is 73.1-percent. So, in terms that I can understand: we give 4 kids this test, and 3 of them pass it.

Those are pretty good scores for any school, especially when you consider that middle school is a really, really odd time in the life of a child (Remember when you where in middle school? Enough said.) Give 10 kids a math test, and 9 pass it. Give 4 kids the English test, and 3 pass it. Sounds like things are going pretty well.

- At Switzerland County Elementary School: Again, we’re talking about math and English/language arts. In math, SCES had 154 kids take the state exam, and 115 of them, that’s 74.7-percent, met or exceeded the state-set goal.

In English/language arts, those 154 children took the test, and 126 of them hit or went over the state goal, which is 81.8-percent of our students.

- At Jefferson-Craig Elementary School: In testing for math and English/language arts, in math the school had 211 students take the test, and 166 met or exceeded the standard that the state set, which is 78.7-percent. In English/language arts, those 211 students were tested, and 186 of them met or exceeded the standard, which is 88.6-percent.

Again, when you consider the economic struggles and family situations that some of our children are going through (not judging, just stating what we all know to be true), I think both of our elementary schools are doing an outstanding job.

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So why, if the test scores are looking good and going up, did we get such nasty grades?

Careful, if you step in that it’s hard to get off of your shoes….

We (and other schools around the state) got the grades we got because the state also takes into consideration all sorts of different “growth levels” that it developed the formulas for so that different areas of a school can be factored in, and students here can be judged against students around the state.

The state formula involves taking the lower 25-percent of students and seeing what type of growth they are experiencing; and the top 75-percent and all types of other groups. All of that information is then ‘fed’ into the state formula, and “behold!” a grade pops out the other end.

“Ok,” you say, “We need to take the state formula and see how it impacts our kids and work from there.”

You’re pretty smart to think that way; but there’s only one problem: the state won’t tell the schools what the formula is.

Yes, you read that correctly: our school system is being judged by a state formula, but they aren’t permitted to know what that formula is.

For individual students, they are subjected to a strange process, as well. Let’s say your child gets a score of 545 on the math portion of the state test. He/she is then put into a group with every other child in the state at the same grade level who also got a 545 in math. A formula then compares what those kids got in past years, regardless of where in the state they live, and then from there each student is labeled as “no growth”, “low growth”, “moderate growth”, or “high growth”.

This applies an unfair label to each child.

An example: Fred Ross shared that one student here (nameless) raised their test score over last year by more than 60 points, which is more than an entire grade level. That’s really good, right? Well, when that student was plugged into their state group, because of all of the other kids, our Switzerland County child was labeled as “low growth”.

Another example: several children at Jefferson-Craig raised their scores by over 100 points, but when put into their state group, were labeled as “low growth”.

One child’s scores here went down from the last testing, but still showed growth when put into their state group.

Does any of this make sense to anyone?

By the way: if you take the state test as a third grader and you pass it; then you take the state test as a fourth grader and you pass it: isn’t THAT growth? You’re passing the test, seems to me like you’re growing, but obviously that’s too simple for state educators.

When I was in college, video games were just coming out (a child of the Pong generation), and in the student lounge of my college, there were big machines with ‘Centipede’ and ‘Space Invaders’ and games like those on them. I had no clue how to play one of those games or what the rules were, and neither did any of my buddies. To learn, we dropped a quarter into the slot and started. Quickly, we were dead and it would take another quarter to apply what we had just learned.

Being the poor college student that I was, I didn’t play those games much, but I had friends who poured quarter after quarter into those games, simply trying to learn how to play it, let alone trying to get good at it.

As I left the administration building on Monday morning, I sort of felt like those principals and their teaching staffs are trying to learn to play a game that the state mandates that they play – except instead of quarters, they are forced by the state to use our children; because the state threatens that if schools continually get really poor grades (F’s), then the state will hire a private firm to come in and run the schools.

Obviously, we don’t want that.

So, here’s what we really need to look at: when our kids are taking state tests, overall the vast majority of them are meeting or exceeding the levels that the state is setting.

Period.

Let’s not get caught up in “grades” that are being handed out using a formula that they won’t share with anyone; and were released to the public less than a week before an election.

We have good administrators here that are working hard to give your child the very best education that they can get. We have buildings filled with teachers who work with your students all day, then stay late to help more; then go home and grade papers and prepare for the next day and the coming week. We have aides who spend hours working one on one with kids to help bring them up to level and excel. We have bus drivers who get up early and prepare their buses so your kids get to school safely and on time, and then home again that evening. We have cafeteria staffs who work to provide nutritious and good-tasting food; and we have custodial staffs who work to make sure our schools are clean each night.

There’s so much more to our school system than some letter grade that a state computer spits out, and we need to not only recognize that, but we also need to celebrate that.

Can we do better? Always. But I think right now we’re doing pretty well, no matter what letter grade you want to hang on them.