BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
The Tennessee Department of Education has released the 2012 Report Cards for school systems across the state, which detail student achievement data relating to assessments and graduation rates.
In Greene County, the system saw a year's growth in most achievement assessments, which were taken near the close of the 2011-2012 school year.
While most of the data normally released with the report card has already been reported by the state, some information was withheld until its recent formal release, including three-year average performance indicators and school-specific data. (Please see charts.)
Prior announcements have included the status of South Greene High School as a "Reward School."
South Greene was one of the few schools in the state to make the "Reward School" list under both possible designations: being in the top 5 percent of schools in the state for Academic Growth, and being in the top 5 percent of schools for Academic Achievement.
McDonald Elementary School was named a "Focus School," indicating that it is in the 10 percent of schools in the state with the largest achievement gaps between groups of students.
System-wide, Academic Achievement scores remained the same as in the past two years, with a B in math and social studies, and a C in reading/language arts.
Science, however, dropped from a B to a C.
These scores are largely based on the number of students scoring "Proficient" or "Advanced" in grades 3-8 on annual tests known as the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP).
If there is no change, that fact indicates that the students have progressed with an expected year's gain in knowledge and achievement, according to Director of Schools Dr. Vicki Kirk, and a C is given.
A lower grade indicates that less than a year's expected progress has been achieved, while a higher grade indicates more academic growth than the expectation for a year's progress.
The state average for Academic Growth in math and social studies remained at B's.
However, the state average for Academic Growth in both reading/language arts and science, showed gains, increasing from C's to B's.
The national No Child Left Behind program called for such large yearly gains in Academic Growth that many school systems in various states found the required gains unachievable.
As a result, Tennessee was one of several states to receive what is known as a U.S. Department of Education Accountability Waiver waiving the No Child Left Behind standards.
The waiver allows those states to work with school districts to set gains that still eventually bring them up to the national standards, but do so at a more achievable rate, according to Kirk.
Successfully operating under this program, however, requires that a school system make more than a year's growth -- essentially seeing positive gains, rather than no change.
"We're seeing movement," Kirk stated during an interview last Thursday.
She explained that it is difficult to increase these three-year averages because increases are balanced out by both some losses in years past and the expected changes from year to year for some students.
"For a child or for a group of children, if they're making a year's worth of progress in a year, that [grade] doesn't change," she said.
"What we're trying to do with a large number of students is to get more than a year's worth of gain in a year.
"We're working hard to do that; we've got a lot going on. But it is hard," she added.
"Every child's not going to demonstrate a gain on TCAP. Some of them will go backward just because they had a bad year or had a bad day that day."
The director noted that there were some individual schools that showed grade-level gains (such as from a D to a C) that were not achieved in the system-wide average.
Kirk also pointed to the system's "value-added" scores, which are based on a three-year average of gains, as a numerical indicator of the system's improvement.
In math, the school system's overall grade increased from a D to a B, while other grades stayed the same: D in both reading/language arts and in science, and a B in social studies.
Each of these subjects did, however, show slight increases numerically that simply did not provide enough increase to raise the letter grade.
By the Report Card standard, a C reflects the expected level of progress.
The Report Card not only detailed value-added for the three-year average, but also for each individual year.
Value-added scores for grades 4-8 were largely all negative in the 2009-2010 school year, the school year before Kirk took office.
"We're still below the state [averages]... but we're seeing the progress in most areas that makes us optimistic," she said. "I do generally say we expect to see the [value-added] next year jump ...
" is a lot of negative numbers; it's holding us back," Kirk explained. "When '10 goes away, and if we get another [year] that looks similar to what we've got in '12, we're going to be on the plus side -- and I'm hoping for A's!"
The system is already maintaining A's in TCAP writing scores for 8th and 11th grades, as well as a B in 5th.
The state averaged A's in all grades for TCAP writing.
The school system's average ACT scores also remain slightly below the state's, but the scores improved over the past two years, increasing from an 18.4 average composite score to 18.9 out of 36.
Most colleges and universities require at least a 19 in order for students to enroll without taking remedial courses.
The state average for 2012 was a 19.2 composite.
Kirk has indicated that the system hopes to meet or exceed a 19-composite average in 2013.
HIGH SCHOOLS' SCORES
The Report Card measures high school achievement not only by ACT, but also by end-of-course exams, known as EOCs.
The specific percentages of students in the system scoring "Proficient" or "Advanced" in each of these exams was released earlier this year.
That information showed notable losses in Algebra I and Biology, but growth in Algebra II, English I, and English II.
The Report Card further analyzed this data, assigning a "status" to each course based on the progress of students in the system compared with the progress of students in the "average school in the state."
The system was then assigned a status of "above," "below," or "no detectable difference" (NDD) for each course.
Algebra I, English I and English II all received scores of NDD.
Algebra II and U.S. History were above the state average, while Biology and English III were below.
Graduation rates declined slightly from 94.1 percent in 2011 to 93.8 percent in 2012.
Kirk said that this percentage, however, remains within the appropriate range of 93-95 percent.
PLANS TO IMPROVE
The school system already has a number of professional development and curriculum changes under way in an effort to see increased gains.
"We're really hopeful because we believe we're doing the kinds of things that will help kids make really good gains," Kirk said.
"We're doing that small-group guided reading; we're doing rigorous math. We're trying to incorporate Common Core standards."
Kirk explained that reading and literacy have been a huge emphasis for the system over the past two years, with literacy nights and two-hour blocks for reading and language arts, which include 90-minutes of Common Core instruction and 30 minutes of more individualized coaching.
Teachers and individual schools are keeping a close eye on the resulting scores, the director said.
"They're watching their numbers. They know what they need to be doing. They can see exciting progress," she said.
Advancing reading levels at an earlier age will also eventually lead to improvements on the ACTs, which often feature complex texts, Kirk said.
The system is also providing professional development in the state's new Common Core curriculum, which features different teaching methods and curriculum standards than in past years.
This will include working with a company based in Arizona, Evans Newton Incorporated, for professional development in Common Core standards in math and reading for grades 6-8, as well as for special education teachers.
Kirk said that Putnam County saw double-digit gains in math achievement scores after working with this company.
The director said that she hopes to see incorporating special education teachers in this rigorous training aid in closing the gap by holding all students to high, achievable standards.
'NOVICE TEACHERS' CITED
Declines in Algebra I were largely the result of "novice teachers," the director said.
She noted that the system is implementing a new program to link teachers across the system that are teaching similar courses so that they can collaborate on what they are teaching and how long they are spending teaching it.
However, she said this may continue to be an issue next year, as she anticipates needing to hire three to four replacement math teachers in the high schools due to retirements or teachers moving to other systems.
In addition, "It's time to begin to look at science," she said, addressing the decline on this year's report card.
She noted that many reading lessons are now incorporating science content to help advance understanding of these non-fiction texts.
Kirk issued a news release related to the Report Card, in which she also notes data that she said is not as "widely reported."
This includes that the per-pupil local expenditure for schools in Greene County, at $7,811, remains below the state average of $9,123.
She also notes improved attendance in elementary and secondary -- from 94.7 percent last year in grades kindergarten through 8th to 95.3 percent this year and from 94.6 percent in the high schools last year to 95.2 percent this year.
"On the whole, this Report Card shows many strengths and bright spots across the district," she concluded.
"This is due to the dedication and hard work of our teachers and staff and to the efforts of our students.
"We believe that hard work will increase achievement, and we are seeing the results of acting upon that belief."