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by Colin Powell
Deer Isle-Stonington High School is off the state’s list of low performing schools. After being ranked last year among the schools in the state that consistently scored lowest on standardized tests, the school is not on this year’s list.
While the school still ranks eighth from the bottom in terms of average scores on the math and reading component of the SAT, the “low performing school” designation is pegged to low percentage improvements in SAT scores over three years as well as low average scores over those years.
Deer Isle-Stonington showed enough growth in the first category to earn itself a new designation as one of the state’s most-improved schools.
Principal Todd West said the percentage improvement part of the formula may make the process “not the best way to measure school improvement.”
“How can you go from least improving to most improving in one year?” he asked.” A low performing” designation gives schools an opportunity to compete for grant money if they successfully submit an approved “intervention model” to the department.
After appearing on the list last year, the administration, school board and community leapt at the opportunity to capture funds to help turn the school around. The school received an exception from the department of education that allowed Principal Todd West to retain his job, because the grant funding called for the replacement of principals at under performing schools. But the bid for the grant was ultimately unsuccessful, because the school failed to meet a minimum certification requirement for all teachers.
West pointed out that last year, of the three years used in calculating the state’s average “growth,” the middle year, 2007-08, was the lowest, with 24 percent of students proficient. But the second half of the equation only used the 2006-07, 33 percent, and 2008-09, 33.5 percent, giving the school a growth percentage of 0.5 percent, well below the state average of around 4 percent for 2009-10.
This year, the school benefited from the state’s use of the 24 percent proficient statistic from 2007-08 and subtracting it from the 2009-10 percentage of about 34 percent. This resulted in a 10 percent growth statistic for the 2010-11 school year, one of the top improving schools in the state.
Statistics aside, West said he is happy to be off the list, and to be able to focus on the school improvements he has been working on for the past three years.
“It is nice to not be on the list, let’s you take a deep breath,” West said.
The change also allows him to take a look at assessments that he says more accurately track growth in student learning, as opposed to the aptitude succeed in college, tested for by the SAT.
One such assessment the school has been using is NWEA, a testing model that asks students progressively more difficult questions until they answer incorrectly, and then steps down in difficulty, bouncing between easier and more difficult questions… until a student has gotten a certain percentage wrong. West said the school uses NWEA assessments administered in the fall, winter and spring as benchmarks for how well instruction is working. So far, the tool is showing “pretty remarkable growth,” West said.
In an e-mail, West showed figures that demonstrate consistent improvement in NWEA scores over the past three years. In many cases, such as with reading in the tenth and eleventh grades, the percentage of the class proficient in the material jumped more than 30% from when NWEA administration began in the fall of 2009.
West said he is excited to see SAT scores this year. He said this year’s juniors have traditionally struggled more than the previous two year’s classes, but they’ve recently been making big strides in their NWEA scores.
“I have a suspicion they might do better than last year’s juniors,” West said.
Back on the subject of the state’s under performing schools West said the process of applying for the grant was important in putting a spotlight on the school’s need for improvement. But he also said he has been working to improve the school since he walked in the door.
“We were focused on improvement before last spring, hyper-focused last spring, and we’re still focused on it,” West said. He added that his strategy has always been that unless you change the culture of the school— how parents, teachers, kids—look at education, anything you do will be short lived.
“If a program you bring is not part of a community’s culture, those gains go away. That’s why school reform has been so frustrating. We go from one fad to another. But working on changing culture takes awhile,” West said. “But it is nice to not have the Department of Education wagging their finger at you.”