Experts: Many factors impact a school’s quality

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a three-part series about standardized testing in District 88.

NEW ULM — When it comes to really understanding a school’s quality, it takes a lot more than test scores.

Because much of a student’s ability to succeed is determined in home and other locations outside of a school’s control, gauging quality of a school can be very difficult.

“You always need to take into account the student body of the school and what all of the various factors that are shaping the achievement and attainment levels of the students are that have nothing with the school and have everything to do with students’ lives outside of the school,” College of the Holy Cross Assistant Professor Jack Schneider said.

For example, Schneider points to graduation rates. He argues that whether or not a student graduates is mostly determined by where they grew up and what privileges they had.

A student who grew up in a home where education was emphasized and who had supportive parents is more likely to graduate regardless of the quality of their school, Schneider said.

“We tend to ignore that and attribute all of the outcomes directly to the school, which then leads to people believing that schools with a less privileged student body are therefore bad schools which actually fosters segregation because they are trying to stay away from those schools, when in fact those schools may be perfectly good but their outcomes may simply reflect that they have a student body that is just simply less privileged,” Schneider said.

ISD 88 is ahead of the curve for graduation rates with 97.1 percent of 2016 seniors graduating in that year. Statewide, 82.2 percent graduated in 2016.

The district is also doing well with fewer dropouts. Only 1.5 percent of students dropping out versus a statewide rate of 5.5 percent.

Graduation rates show a general increase in the rate of graduating students from 93 percent in 2012, with a slight dip in 2013 to 91.8 percent before a steady increase.

Additionally, while the percentage has been steadily increasing the size of the class has been trending downward.

Extrapolating from Minnesota Report Card data, class sizes dropped from a total of 172 seniors in 2012 to 147 in 2013, jumped up to 159 in 2014 before dropping to 135 in 2015 and 136 in 2016.

Which is significant in that as a class size drops, keeping the graduation percentage up becomes more difficult. It takes fewer and fewer students leaving to make a difference, District 88 Superintendent Jeff Bertrang said.

Aside from the proficiency testing that standardized assessments like the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) do are the growth measurements that schools use for internal assessments such as the STAR and FAST tests.

Those are useful for schools because they can use the data to inform how well a curriculum teaches students during the year and adjust accordingly.

“The ones we are using internally we can use the next day because we get the data right away,” Bertrang said.

Growth rates are more important to the school than the proficiencies measured by MCA testing because, in part, better growth should lead to better test scores anyway, Bertrang said.

“I always tell people I can come in proficient and leave proficient and never learn a thing,” Bertrang said.

Most stakeholders outside of a district have no access to general growth scores unless a district publishes anonymized data, though parents usually have access to their own child’s rates.

Outside of graduation rates and test scores there are numerous ways to rate a school district. The difficulty is they mostly come down to what a parent values, which is why there is not definitively ranked list of schools.

Couple that with the lack of any widespread program to track these data and parents are pretty much out of luck if they hope to easily compare school districts.

What data there is available is largely through the report card. It can be accessed at education.state.mn.us under the data center tab.

ISD 88 will soon be hosting a dashboard on its website that collects a number of measures that parents may find important, Bertrang said.

A couple of examples that Bertrang listed would be: attendance rate, finances, parent satisfaction, ACT scores, college credits available and co-curricular programming.

Attendance can be a measure of the atmosphere of a school, Bertrang said. Another way to try to understand the atmosphere of a school can also be the results of the three-year student survey.

The survey asks students a series of questions related to how much they care about school, how safe they feel and more. The results are available on the Minnesota Department of Education’s website via the Minnesota Report Card.

Finances can show the stability of school programs, Bertrang said. Essentially a financially stable school is less likely to cut programs.

That goes hand-in-hand with public support, which may be easiest to gauge based on levy approvals.

In 2014 the district was narrowly approved (50.5 percent) by a referendum to issue a building levy for a new high school not to exceed $46.9 million.

More recently, the school board approved a slight decrease in an operating levy to $300 per pupil, even with a public survey that indicated about 75 percent of the public supported continuing the levy as is.

In addition, the school board intends to keep enough unassigned funds to continue operating for 60 days, or about $3.6 million. At the end of the first month of this fiscal year, July 2017, the school had $6.9 million in its general fund.

Even with examining data, it still is important to do the foot work when it comes to judging a school, Schneider said.

Talking to parents, teachers, graduates and administrators in a school or district can help a stakeholder understand the strength’s and shortcomings of a school.

“The very best thing that you can do if you want to gauge a school’s quality is go to the school,” Schneider said.

ccummiskey@nujournal.com.

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