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Posted: 9:20 a.m. Friday, July 25, 2014

High performing schools in Cobb, Gwinnett with low growth rates: Cause for concern?  

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By Maureen Downey

After the AJC education reporters met with the Department of Education Monday on its new growth model, we talked about how to report the news to help folks understand the measures. If you read the package on MyAJC.com, you will find my news colleagues assembled a thorough examination of the growth model.

Today, they return with a deeper dive: how schools that lead the state in pass rates on tests did on growth scores.

In my earlier blog on the growth model, several posters said high performing students and schools will naturally show less growth because they are already at the top.

But the growth model compares high performers to other high performers. So within their comparison category, there can be a range of growth.

And we do have schools where more than 95 percent of students passed but only showed 39 percent median growth, while a peer school with a similar pass rate showed 54 percent growth. (You will see this example below.)

This is the first year for these growth scores, so we ought to be wary of what they mean and what they signify.

With that caveat, here is an excerpt of the MyAJC.com story on how some high flyers performed by AJC reporters Molly Bloom,  Jeff Ernsthausen and Ty Tagami:

Students at some of metro Atlanta’s top schools may have few problems passing state tests, but they’re not learning as much in some subjects as their peers at other schools, new data released Thursday shows.

The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology, for instance, typically tops Georgia’s performance charts, but under the new measure unveiled by the Georgia Department of Education the high school is a low performer in one key area of math. Cobb County’s Walton High School is another highly-ranked school that isn’t tops on the new list, which reveals performance using what the state is calling student “growth.”

The data is designed to show how much students at each school learn in a year, regardless of whether they passed state tests. The measure is based on test scores, but it’s part of a shift from grading schools almost entirely on pass/fail rates, which favor schools with low poverty.

For the first time, anyone can go online and check out a school’s growth performance by grade level, subject and demographic factors like race and poverty. Schools can be compared against each other, though officials caution this data shouldn’t be the only measure parents consider in choosing a school.

Most of the schools in DeKalb County have lagged under the pass/fail measure, but growth is giving administrators there reason to cheer.

 “If you look at economically disadvantaged students, particularly at the high school level, we are pleased with what we are seeing,” said Trenton Arnold, a regional superintendent who used to oversee testing in the district, where three of four students live in poverty.

But, in general in Georgia, schools with more students from low-income families tended to have lower growth results than schools with a smaller proportion of low-income students.

Poor kids in DeKalb typically lagged their better-off peers in growth, too, but not by as much as in test pass rates. For example, the pass rate on the high school End of Course Test in coordinate algebra for economically disadvantaged students was 21 percent, about 25 percentage points behind wealthier students. But the median growth measure for poor students on the exam was 46, just 9 points behind wealthier students.

Meanwhile, some high-performing schools didn’t look so great under the new measure.

At Walton High School in Cobb County, for instance, 99 percent of students passed the American literature test, but the median growth percentile was just 39.

(Note from me: Out of curiosity, I checked the growth vs. performance in American Lit of other high performing high schools to see how Walton stacked up. Lambert High School in Forsyth had a 99 percent pass rate, but its median growth percentile was only 40 percent. Fulton’s Northview High, also with a 99 percent pass rate, had a median growth percentile of 49 percent. Chamblee Charter in DeKalb had a 97 percent pass rate, but a 40 percent growth rate. Fayette’s McIntosh High had a 98 percent pass rate, and a 49 percent growth rate. Gainesville High School had a 91 percent pass rate, but a 38 percent growth rate. Habersham Central High had a 90 percent pass rate, and a 35 percent growth rate. My local high school, Decatur High, had a 97 percent pass rate and a growth rate of 54 percent.)

The director of accountability and research for Cobb, Ehsan Kattoula, said Cobb high schools did well overall with growth. Asked about results like the literature percentile at Walton, he said, “You might have a high-achieving student and still have small growth. … If a student gets a 99 on the previous test, they’re not going to have much growth.”

The Georgia Department of Education contends that even high-achieving students can grow under this new measure because it allows them to demonstrate growth in comparison to other high-achieving students.

Jonathan Patterson, the associate superintendent over testing in Gwinnett, said the growth measure is too new to know whether a math result at the district’s School of Mathematics, Science and Technology is cause for concern. Every student there passed the Mathematics II test, but the median growth percentile in the course, which covers geometry, algebra and statistics, was 40, eight points below the district median and nine below the state median. He noted, though, that in other subjects, such as biology, the school performed well in pass rates and growth.

Georgia is one of about 40 states using students’ academic growth as a factor in rating schools, though how growth is calculated and how much weight it’s given varies by state. And Georgia is one of about 20 states using students’ academic growth as a major factor in evaluating teachers..

The old focus on pass rates alone, a mandate under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, focused attention on “the saddest” outcomes, said Melissa Fincher, the associate superintendent over testing at the Georgia Department of Education. That revealed a stark truth: Test scores were closely linked with poverty.

Schools that traditionally topped the rankings for pass rates may get some unwanted attention for middling growth, Fincher said. “That’s going to be very difficult conversations for them to have.”

Maureen Downey

About Maureen Downey

Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for 12 years.

Connect with Maureen Downey on:FacebookTwitter

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