(Updated) Wake schools' test results improved in 2011-12; low-income students show gains. Added: Some thoughts on the so-what?

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[Update, August 3:

Returning to the subject of the good results announced yesterday (i.e., the "what"), let me see if I can add a bit about what they tell us about our school system (i.e., the "so what?"). And especially the so-what when it comes to student assignment and the ongoing "choice" vs. "base assignments" vs. "hybrid base-and-choice" debate.

1) I'm not a statistician, so I won't question the statistical significance of the relatively small gains overall. They are gains, no question about it as far as I know. And the gains were not small with regard to economically disadvantaged (ED) kids. The composite proficiency scores for ED elementary, middle and high school students were all much-improved, with ED elementary jumping from 61.9% proficient to 65.7%, and ED high school proficiency rising from 66.0% to 70.8%. (Composite proficiency combines the reading, math and science scores.)

Superintendent Tony Tata was properly modest in claiming credit. When you're blessed with good news, it's best to share the credit, and that's what he did, repeatedly. "Dedicated principals, teachers, teacher assistants and staff" are the reason the scores went up, Tata said. Put this in your memory bank. Tata said the Wake public school system is a "highly effective organization" and it was his privilege to lead it. (Remember that the next time you hear someone railing about our failing schools.)

2) So that was fun, but why did the scores — and especially the ED scores — improve? What special sauce was added? Answer: Resources.

Resources, meaning: additional money. Meaning: additional staff. Also: Staff reshuffling to put new (presumably better) principals and teachers into the schools that needed them most.

Thus, the four worst performing elementary school of two years ago were overhauled as "Renaissance Schools," complete with new principals (for three of the four) and two-thirds of the faculty also new. Plus new equipment. Plus added teachers, math and literacy tutors and after-school tutoring programs. How was all this paid for? With $9.5 million from the $10.2 million Wake received as part of the state's "Race to the Top" federal grant.

The four, Barwell Road ES, Brentwood Magnet ES, Creech Road ES and Wilburn ES, each have high ED student populations. Sharp improvements in their scores, especially at Barwell and Wilburn, led the way to the elementary ED gains for the system.

Add in Walnut Creek ES, a new school which enrolled a very high ED student population in year one. The Walnut Creek students had poor scores at their old schools. Their overall proficiency rate at Walnut Creek was 60.0%, up 4.7%. Their combined math and reading scores (leaving the science out) was 62.9%, an even more impressive 7.3% gain.

And how did we achieve this at Walnut Creek? Most who follow the school system know by now that the answer is, a hand-picked staff; a longer school day; extra staff as tutors, and a lot of additional money — $450,000 more in local (county) funds alone, Tata said.

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3) I don't want to get too far into the weeds of the Wake schools budget here (or I'll get lost). Suffice it to say that the operating budget for the school system has been shrinking in recent years.

I'll attach a PDF that David Neter, the system's top budget guy, sent me a few weeks ago, and you can parse it for yourself. FY08_to_FY12_Operating_History_Budgets_by_Source_w_Per_Pupil_FINAL_in__WCPSS_Budget_format_-_Neter_copy.pdf

As I read it, the operating budget is down $800 per student from the 2008-09 school year to 2012-13 ($8,596 in the former year; $7,796 in the current year). Actual spending is down less, because school leaders were careful to carve out some savings from those past budgets, so that, e.g., actual spending in 2008-09 was just $8,153 — but even with that smaller number as the starting point, per-student funding for 2012-13 will be down a minimum of $357 per student compared to four years ago, and doubtless more than that when the 2011-13 "actual" number comes in.

Moreover, it was increased federal funding (stimulus funding; Race to the Top) that was propping up Wake's school budgets over the past three years. But that money is going away in future years. Meanwhile, state and county funding has been dropping.

In that vein, Tata made a point of underlining the importance of the $21 million a year that Wake's been getting in federal Title I funds — Title I being money for low-income kids. Wake spends all of its Title I funding in the elementary schools. (It's a long-standing policy, he said.) It's hugely helpful to the job of teaching kids to read and do basic arithmetic if they're struggling with same — and especially if they don't have effective parental assistance. But the $21 million is threatened as part of the budget/tax fight in Washington.

Tata's message to Congress and, for that matter, the General Assembly and the Wake Board of Commissioners: "This is working [and the test scores show it]. We need the money. Let's have a hard conversation about the funding of public education."

***

So, now —

4) In the face of declining budgets, Tata & Co. allocated additional funds to low-performing schools, and the schools got better. Somewhat better. They're still pretty far down the list when you compare them with the many other schools with fewer — and in some cases, few — ED kids.

While the four Renaissance Schools and Walnut Creek were gaining, though, a couple of other schools slipped below the 60% level for proficiency, and many more are stuck in the 60-70% range, which is below the 70% minimum that choice-plan guru Michael Alves said was required to avoid having schools fail under a choice plan for student attendance.

In a choice scheme, parents do indeed choose where they want their kids to go. They won't choose a low-performing school. Not if they're paying attention. Not if they're really given a choice, and not getting stuck with a school that was their fourth or fifth "choice" but they get it because the other, better schools were already full.

The one big advantage of a base-assignment plan is that school officials can fill every school to capacity and balance student populations so that no school is overwhelmed with ...

... and here, the problem isn't ED kids per se, it's kids who aren't scoring well on the tests, but the two things are correlated.

At the end of year one of the choice-plan experiment, some Wake schools were over-chosen and some were under-chosen — meaning that for whatever reason parents didn't want the latter, and consequently, those schools will open in 2012-13 with fewer students than they can hold. Which means the over-chosen schools are more crowded than they need to be.

Which is expensive. (Why? Because you need more schools if you don't fill the ones you have.)

And, as we've seen, fixing under-chosen, under-performing schools is expensive.

If Wake County had a better track record of providing funds for our school system, maybe those two facts wouldn't matter as much as they do. But Wake County's performance when it comes to putting money into our schools is — you know.

What does this mean for student assignment? I leave that to you.

***

What follows is the original post from 8/2 on the test results themselves —

Wake school officials will be talking with reporters this afternoon about what they think it all means — and why the test results are improved. No doubt, people will be pawing through these scores for weeks trying to discern their meaning for the big decisions the school board has ahead, including a new student assignment scheme for 2013-14 and another school construction bond referendum, probably next year and probably large ($1 billion-plus?).

So I'l come back to this subject later. For now, here's what the school system released this morning about the 2011-12 school year and how our kids did on the various reading, math and science tests:

Academic gains continue in the Wake County Public School System

Wake County students at every grade span made steady academic gains in 2011-12, according to newly released results from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. In addition to district-wide increases in proficiency, Economically Disadvantaged students in Wake County demonstrated the highest levels of proficiency in math and reading that they have achieved under the state's current testing model. Non-Economically Disadvantaged students showed impressive gains, as well.

Thursday's results are part of a comprehensive report that uses End-of-Course (EOC) and End-of-Grade (EOG) tests and other information to measure school performance under the N.C. ABCs of Public Education and the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The results show that in 2011-12:

WCPSS elementary students demonstrated an overall proficiency rate of 82.1 percent, a gain of 1.9 points from the previous year.

WCPSS middle-school students demonstrated an overall proficiency rate of 82.1 percent, a gain of .9 points from the previous year.

WCPSS high-school students demonstrated an overall proficiency rate of 85.8 percent, an increase of 2.5 points from the previous year.

“We thank all of our dedicated principals, teachers, school-based and central office staff for their superb accomplishments and hard work,” Superintendent Tony Tata said.

EOC and EOG results

District wide gains:

The percentage of students showing proficiency in reading, math and science increased in every grade level and subject tested, except for one—7th-grade math.

Third graders showed the most improvement, gaining 2.4 points in math and 2.2 points in reading.

Proficiency rates for Algebra I, Biology and English I End-of-Course tests also increased.

Gains for Economically Disadvantaged (ED) students:
Economically Disadvantaged students are defined as those who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

The percentage of ED students demonstrating proficiency in reading, math and science increased in every grade level and subject tested, except for 7th-grade math.

At the elementary level, the proficiency rate of ED students increased four points to 66 percent

At the middle-school level, the proficiency rate of ED students increased two points to 64 percent

At the high-school level, the proficiency rate of ED students increased five points to 71 percent

Additionally, economically disadvantaged students in grades 3 through 8 demonstrated the highest levels of proficiency in math and reading tests since test standards were raised in those subject areas (Math was reset in 2006, reading was reset in 2008)

Economically Disadvantaged high-school students also demonstrated the highest level of proficiency since the school system began reporting on this subgroup 10 years ago.

Some of the most significant gains occurred in some of the school system’s most challenged schools. The school system’s Renaissance elementary schools saw remarkable gains in overall proficiency. Barwell Road students achieved a 9.7-point gain and Wilburn students achieved a 7.7-point gain. These schools benefited in 2011-12 from staffing changes, technology upgrades and schedule flexibility.

Recognition under the ABCs of Public Education

The ABCs of Public Education are state measures of the performance of individual schools across North Carolina.

The ABCs use year-end test results and other information to measure student performance and determine whether a school is improving each year.

71 percent of WCPSS schools showed proficiency gains overall in 2011-12, compared to 63 percent the previous year.

93 percent of WCPSS schools achieved Expected Growth or High Growth.

110 schools made High Growth

An additional 42 schools made Expected Growth

The state named 23 schools as Honor Schools of Excellence or Schools of Excellence, the highest recognitions possible under the ABCs; This is an increase from 17 schools the previous year.

Honor Schools of Excellence include Alston Ridge, Briarcliff, Cedar Fork, Davis Drive, Highcroft Drive, Jones Dairy, Mills Park, Morrisville, Olive Chapel, Sycamore Creek and Willow Springs elementary schools; Apex, Davis Drive, Heritage, Lufkin Road, Mills Park and Salem middle schools; and Panther Creek High and Wake Early College of Health and Science. The state recognizes Honor Schools of Excellence for having at least 90 percent of students performed at or above grade level, meeting Expected Growth, and meeting all of their federal Annual Measurable Objectives requirements for subgroups.

Schools of Excellence include Green Hope Elementary, as well as Green Hope and Holly Springs high schools and the Wake NC State STEM Early College High School. The state recognizes Schools of Excellence for having at least 90 percent of students performed at or above grade level and meeting at least Expected Growth. The state rates other schools as Schools of Distinction, Schools of Progress, Priority Schools, or No Recognition Schools based on student testing results.

Performance under No Child Left Behind

Federal standards under No Child Left Behind measure end-of-year proficiency for selected subgroups of students at schools. For the first time this year, the performance of those subgroups is measured with Annual Measurable Objectives (AMO), replacing what was known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

Instead of meeting or failing to meet AYP, schools will now be evaluated based on the number of Annual Measurable Objectives students meet in each measurable subgroup.

According to the newly released 2011-12 results, 84 of 164 schools met all of their Annual Measurable Objectives. An additional 41 schools missed reaching 100 percent of their Annual Measurable Objectives by one or two targets.

Graduation Rates

According to data released Thursday, 80.8 percent of WCPSS students who entered high school as part of the Class of 2012 graduated within four years. This figure is likely to fluctuate after a standard correction period, and could change when the state issues a final report later this year.

The WCPSS graduation rate for the Class of 2011 was 80.4, and was adjusted to 80.9 after the standard correction period.

Statewide, 80.2 percent of students who entered high school as part of the Class of 2012 graduated within four years, according to the data released Thursday.

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