Cook: Critics rankle schools with numbers

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 23, 2012

The Rowan-Salisbury School System increased graduation rates from 73 percent in 2010 to 76.9 percent in 2010-11, according to the ABCs report the state issued last August.
As the schools’ press release said, “Exciting News!!”
The Post reported the increase in the next day’s paper. We also reported these local numbers in the same story:
• 23 of 35 public schools met “expected” or “high growth” levels.
• 65.7 percent of the schools met expected academic growth or registered high growth, the state average was 81.4 percent.
• 20th was the system’s rank in the number of targets to reach.
• This is a direct quote from the story: “Of the 68 targets Rowan-Salisbury has under the accountability program, it met 36, or 52.9 percent. Only two systems in the state met a lower percentage.” Notice there’s no mention of “rank,” no reference to 115 systems.
Out of all those numbers and comparisons, the one that stuck with the school system’s critics was the last one. Since the story said elsewhere that the state has 115 school systems, critics deduced that Rowan-Salisbury ranked 113th.
Well, actually, most of them said 112th — proof that our adult population could use math remediation. But the point is the same. Any time the school system makes headlines, some commenter or letter writer raises the specter of this supposed rank.
One of the first references came in an Aug. 9 letter from David Hall, husband of former principal and commissioner Tina Hall. “With 115 school systems, it was reported that Rowan’s was outperformed on the ABC Report Card by all but two,” Hall said, and called for a change in attitude at the top.
The school system ran a large ad in last Sunday’s Post (Page 6A, “TEST SCORE UPDATE”) to say that labeling an entire system with that one number created a false image. (The ad was paid for with private funds.)
I agree, and when we published information about the percentage of targets reached, we did not expect it to get much attention.
But I did find the target issue intriguing and I asked school officials about it via email. The Post did not publish the response at the time because the statistic did not seem worth dwelling upon. But the schools’ ad has made the supposed “112 out of 115” issue timely again. So, here’s the exchange from an Aug. 4, 2011, email. I’m asking the questions; spokesperson Rita Foil relays the answers:
Q: Digging into this ABC information, it appears only two systems in the state met a lower percentage of their AYP targets in 2010-2011 than the Rowan-Salisbury School System. RSSS met 52.9 percent. Vance and Buncombe met 51.8 and 51.4 percent, respectively.
Rowan has a lot of targets, but Cabarrus has even more, and it met 83.3 percent of them.
What can Dr. Grissom say to our readers about that? Why would Rowan have a harder time than most school systems meeting its targets?
Dr. Judy Grissom, superintendent: We identified during this past school year our concerns with literacy within our county as a whole and within the school system. At the same time, our budget situation forced us to cut the majority of our literacy coaches. These coaches had provided training on reading instruction, modeled lessons, shared strategies, etc. The transition from this type of support to not having support has been difficult for our schools. We have placed more emphasis on data this year but apparently not enough work on what to do with the data. Meeting the needs of our EC, our socio-economic disadvantaged, and ESOL students continues to be a challenge. Our teachers have worked extremely hard and I know that they are very discouraged with their results. …
We have put strategies into place to hit the problem from the front end in grades K-2 with the “Reading Foundations” program that was implemented last year. This problem did not happen overnight and we are prepared to continue moving forward for the success of our students. It is important to note that of 115 school districts in the state, RSS is number 20 from the top in the number of targets that we are required to meet. Which means we are more diverse than most of the school districts in the state. As our county continues to struggle with unemployment and loss of jobs, our socio-economically disadvantaged students continue to grow. RSS is now over 60% free and reduced lunch as compared to other systems, such as Cabarrus County at 38.5% free and reduced.
Dr. Sarah Hensley, director of elementary education: We must do a better job with reading strategies as they are not consistent in our schools. Time in literacy is not spent where it should be spent. We are working on strengthening teacher skills in reading instruction through Reading Foundations and Guided Reading.
Here, Foil interjected an observation about stories we had posted online about the report:
**I noticed that your headlines read: “Kannapolis has one of the state’s highest graduation rates” with 85.1% for A. L. Brown. RSS had two (2) high schools with higher graduation rates, East Rowan/ 89.5% and Carson/86.8%. Yet, the headlines for RSS reads: “RSS Graduation rates up, improvements down” — it would have been nice to see a similar positive headline for RSS.
In truth, the Rowan-Salisbury School System ranks first
— the single most important entity to the future of Rowan County. The knowledge, skills and life lessons children learn in school will shape the rest of their lives and whatever economic opportunities the county will have.
Our reporting is aimed at informing readers, not promoting the school system and its leaders. Now that this “112 out of 115” issue has had a full airing, let’s move on to issues more pertinent to students’ education.
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Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.