Saturday, February 20, 2010

Behind the numbers

Don Wheeler

As I pored over the 2008-2009 Annual School Performance Report recently published by the South Bend Tribune I found a lot to think about.  We recently learned that the South Bend Community School Corporation realized a ten percent improvement in High School graduation in one year, which is great cause for celebration.  That sort of thing can’t happen solely because of what happens in the High Schools – it must start earlier.  The achievement would seem to indicate the whole SBCSC has made strides that really matter.

But when one throws in the No Child Left Behind program and the test scores which have been elevated to an almost dictatorial status, suddenly the waters muddy.  Suddenly it looks as though we’re actually doing worse.

I’m going to use examples of two particular schools – not because I think they are necessarily the best; rather, just that I know a bit more about them. 

Warren Primary Center on the west side and Hay Primary Center to the south are clearly two of the top non-magnet programs in the SBCSC.  Their test scores have historically topped state averages – but not in the most recent report.  Suddenly by this measure they have become inferior to mediocrity.

I know less about Warren than Hay, but here’s what I do know.   Someone I work with voiced great frustration last year because his son who attended Wilson Primary Center seemed to be doing fine but was told just ahead of summer break that he must attend summer school – or be held back.   Since Wilson is on probation, I suggested he look into other options for his son.  His son now attends Warren and by his father’s reports is doing fabulously well.  Other Warren parents seem happy too and last year’s Indiana Teacher Of  The Year, Tania Harman just happens to work there.

Our daughter is a First Grader at Hay.  My wife is Co-President of the PTO there.  We chose this school over all the magnet  programs and we’ve not been disappointed.  Principal Craig Haenes is not just an inspired administrator and team leader – he is the reason the Wilson LiPS reading program exists in the SBCSC.  Sarah’s teachers Debbie Fraser (this year) and Dixie Eichorst (last year) are dedicated, caring professionals.  The school flat feels good when you walk in the door and our daughter seems to be thriving there.

But the test scores are down in both these schools – fairly dramatically over the prior year.  By this measure they would seem to be in crisis.  I don’t think they are.

I think that these schools are victims of their success – by test score standards.  Warren and Hay were designed to educate neighborhood kids and have done so with aplomb.  As nearby schools were designated as being in probationary status, both became destinations for students whose parents were looking for a better option.  Some of these students naturally had some learning deficits, so their test results would naturally drag down the average numbers.  If we're determined to use test scores, we should be interested in tracking scores of individual students - not institutions

I worry this turn of events is a bit discouraging for at least some of the educators at Warren and Hay.  I hope they can hang with this and ride out an ill-conceived NCLB program to its death.   Getting kids a better opportunity for success at the cost of a lowered institutional test average seems like a fabulous trade-off to me.  Just as long as these folks - doing what we absolutely need them to do - aren’t penalized.

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