DISHS is already “Racing to the Top” despite low-achieving school designation
by TODD WEST, PRINCIPAL, DEER ISLE-STONINGTON HIGH SCHOOL
Deer Isle-Stonington High School has received notification from the Maine Department of Education that it will be identified as a “persistently low-achieving” school when the MDOE files its application for federal Race to the Top (RT3) funds. RT3 is the $4.3 billion educational reform component of President Obama’s stimulus package. The MDOE identified its list of 10 persistently low-achieving schools using data from the last three years of the College Board’s SAT test, which is administered each May to all 11th grade students in Maine. In the case of DISHS, the MDOE determined that DISHS was low-achieving because only 32 percent of student scores on the SAT were proficient in reading and math in 2006-07, 24 percent in 2007-08, and 33.5 percent in 2008-09.
To some extent, the designation as a low-achieving school describes the recent past of DISHS. While not proud of our shortcomings, we identify and acknowledge them publicly. These shortcomings are most easily summarized by a graduation rate (roughly 75 percent of each ninth grade class earns a diploma) that is lower than it should be. A sizable and important minority of our students have low educational aspirations, perform poorly in courses and often fail courses, regularly do not attend school, and cause frequent discipline issues. Further, some of students struggle to attain basic literacy and math skills. I would like to point out that a review of the SAT scores of our 11th grade students would not allow one to accurately identify the achievement issues I just outlined; the SAT or any other single test is too simplistic a measure.
Not only do we acknowledge our weaknesses, we work hard to improve learning for each of our students. DISHS has been engaged in a comprehensive school improvement process for the last three school years, starting in the 2007-08. During that time, the staff has worked to identify school-wide expectations that describe skills essential for our students to master in order to experience post-secondary success in the workplace and in college. We have also worked to design a standards-based diploma, including Senior Exhibition, that will measure our students’ achievement of our school-wide expectations. Our work has been guided by the CSD 13 Strategic Plan and a “School Improvement Action Plan” that identifies two goals: (1) that at least 95 percent of each ninth grade class earns a diploma or GED within four years of entering high school, and (2) that each graduate demonstrates proficiency in our school-wide expectations.
DISHS has also taken significant steps to improve its graduation rate in the hope that no child drops out of school. We have created a Student Assistance Team that meets every two weeks to review the grades, attendance, and discipline data of each ninth and tenth grade student to identify students who are at-risk of failure and provide support long before the student fails. The Student Assistance Team will expand to all grades by the 2011-12 school year. The School Committee has funded and staffed a “Learning Center” where all students can receive help on their school work before, during, or after school. While still early in the march to graduation, these actions are paying dividends for this year’s ninth grade class—just one student failed one course in the first semester.
DISHS is one of many Maine high schools that has opposed the MDOE’s adoption of the SAT as the state’s proficiency test since it was first adopted in 2005. The SAT is an aptitude test designed to help colleges determine which applicants from a diverse pool would be able to succeed at a particular college. The SAT does not measure student mastery of the learning outcomes in most high school curricula. In fact, the SAT doesn’t measure achievement or past performance at all; it only measures aptitude for post-secondary education.
If the SAT is not a valid measure of student achievement, positive or negative, how does a school know that its students are learning? At DISHS, our standards-based diploma system will measure student achievement of those skills our community has identified as the most essential to post-secondary success: creative and practical problem solving and clear and effective communication. While it is still too early in the implementation process to provide data, by the end of next school year the standards-based diploma will provide useful information to the school community about the learning of our students.
DISHS has also begun using the Measures of Academic Progress testing suite from the Northwest Evaluation Association. The NWEA provides teachers, students, and parents with timely feedback about a student’s basic literacy and math skills. NWEA data is used to place students in our reading support class. This fall, the use of NWEA data and focused literacy instruction allowed four of our 10 ninth and 10th grade students who were reading two or more years below grade level to improve to within one year of their grade level (in just four months) and test out of the reading support class.
Our school has also taken steps to improve our school climate and reduce student discipline issues. By clearly stating and consistently enforcing our behavioral expectations for students, we have significantly reduced the number of students who have been suspended each of the last three years. In 2007-08, there were 205 suspensions, and 133 in 2008-09, including nine and 20 suspensions each year (respectively) of five or more days. This year, there were only 36 suspensions in the first semester and only two suspensions for more than five days; this would project to 72 suspensions and four suspensions for five or more days for the entire year, a 65 percent drop in total number of suspensions compared to 2007-08.
Perhaps the most comprehensive and accurate measure of Deer Isle-Stonington High School’s true level of student achievement is the recent accreditation visit and report conducted by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. The final report of the visiting committee did not describe a school that was persistently low-achieving. In fact, the report concluded “there has been a very noticeable sense of direction and purpose at DISHS that very clearly focuses on student learning…this wonderful high school is quickly on its way to becoming one of the premier high schools in the State of Maine. It has the capacity to become that place.”
It is too bad that such a flawed measurement as the SAT is used to label a school as “persistently low-achieving.” The staff of DISHS and the greater Deer Isle-Stonington community work very hard to provide educational opportunities for our students. As Principal, I fully acknowledge that we have work to do as a school and have already taken the steps described above to ensure that it gets done. However, I can stand behind the education that our school provides to the vast majority of our students. Our school is committed to improving the learning of each of our students regardless of the results of poorly conceived state-mandated tests and we will be working hard to improve the actual learning in the classrooms of our school so that we can continue to provide the quality education the students of this community deserve.
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