Schools in Need of Improvement Look Deeper Than Ratings

Jan. 17, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·

Cedar Bluffs High School (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

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The Nebraska Department of Education uses a variety of data to rate schools in the state, placing them into categories such as “excellent” or “needs improvement.” There are many reasons a school may be classified as one that “needs improvement.”

“I’ll be honest with you. No, I don’t think it’s terribly useful because it doesn’t really tell you much,” said Leslie Eastman, director of assessment and evaluation for Lincoln Public Schools. Eastman is referring to the Department of Education’s accountability ratings for schools.

“There are so many things that are mushed together to create those ratings and really without all of that detail, it’s hard to say, ‘What should I do?’” Eastman said.

Leslie Eastman (Photo courtesy Lincoln Public Schools)

There are four options in the ratings: excellent, great, good, and needs improvement. As a district, Lincoln Public Schools is rated “great,” but they have schools at all levels of the scale.

Eastman points out how many different factors can go into a district’s data. For instance, she explains what happened when the state instituted new tests and cut-off scores for elementary and middle school math and English Language Arts assessments.

“Overall at the elementary and middle level, overall performance appears to drop statewide. The year before when we went to the new test on ELA, performance seems to drop. What’s important to remember is overall student performance has not dropped. But the way in which we’re measuring it, and what we’re measuring, and what cut-scores we’re using changed pretty dramatically,” Eastman said.

Last year was the second year all Nebraska juniors were required to take the ACT. If less than 95 percent participate, the school’s rating decreases by one level. However, Eastman says students who scored well their sophomore year, or who are in a life skills curriculum, may not have motivation to take the test, and their parents can opt them out.

Want to learn more about school performance and data? Read about a school that was rated "excellent" here.

“You have to be very aware of that kind of phenomena when you’re kind of looking at those scores and trying to decide how to make sense out of that. So for example, East High School was dropped a level because of less than 95 percent participation. So that overall rating I don’t think is very indicative of what student academic performance looks like at East High,” Eastman said.

So what do all these factors look like close up? Cedar Bluffs High School in eastern Nebraska was rated as a school that “needs improvement” by the state.

It’s a small school. 83 students are taught by 8 teachers. They share a building with the elementary school. 47 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch, about the state average.

Tina Hanzel is principal of Cedar Bluffs Middle and High School. She shares Eastman’s hesitation about the accountability ratings.

Tina Hansel (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

“I do like that they have those four categories, but I do feel like it takes away the focus on, you know, when you see ‘needs improvement,’ you say ‘Oh, what are they, why are they ‘needs improvement?’’ so you look for all the negatives instead of truly looking at the positive things that are going on,” Hanzel said.

Cedar Bluffs is small enough that the state doesn’t publish ACT data to protect student privacy. However, the school is planning on adding an ACT prep course to help boost scores. Hanzel talks with students about what even a small change in their ACT score can mean: more scholarship money, more college choices. She says it can be difficult to motivate some students.

“If we have a student that maybe doesn’t do their best work or isn’t planning to use the ACT to go, they’re not planning to go to college, there’s really no reason they need to take it, we’re maybe not getting the full potential from them,” Hanzel said.

Students’ high school performance may be impacted by their experiences earlier in school.

Ben Hansen is the elementary school principal at Cedar Bluffs. He’s been there for a year and a half now, and he found something interesting when he reviewed student data.

“I saw that over the past couple years, the sixth grade had a pretty tremendous drop in a lot of their performance. Fifth grade just went right into the middle school rotation, and they went from having one classroom teacher all day every day to going to seven, eight periods with seven, eight different teachers and having to keep track of all that kind of stuff,” Hansen said.

Ben Hansen (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

So Cedar Bluffs made a change. Fifth graders now rotate between two teachers, sixth graders switch between four different classes, and seventh graders go into the full eight-period rotation. Hansen hopes this more gradual transition will increase student performance.

Hansen is also dealing with the new elementary assessments and cut-off scores Eastman mentioned.

“The changing of it is good in the fact of my mind because you then always have a new challenge. You don’t get stagnant. But then it’s also frustrating to think, ‘Okay, we’ve worked at this for the last,’ you know, however many years, and you make progress towards it, and then they hit the reset button on you and it’s like, ‘Well, we’re finally getting to where we’re proving, that we’re doing well,’ and then to have to kind of redo it again is the frustrating part,” Hanzel said.

Hansen hopes to get proficiency up in the elementary school, just as Tina Hanzel does at the high school. But Hanzel says it may take time.

“Changes aren’t gonna happen overnight. We’re kind of working off of last year, you know, and so it takes a while for change to really, progress to really show from all of this change. It’s not just an overnight or semester thing. It takes a little bit,” Hanzel said.

Cedar Bluffs may be rated “needs improvement,” but that doesn’t mean improvements aren’t already in the works.