The State Department of Education reports an increase in the number of districts showing a below average or unsatisfactory rating-30 percent this year. Newberry once more does fall into that category, but only partially.
While the School District of Newberry County is ranked as “below average” again this year in its absolute rating, the improvement rating is up dramatically. The district skyrocketed to the upper end of the Report Card spectrum this year, showing an “excellent” improvement rating in comparison to last year's “unsatisfactory.”
Report Cards issue “grades” to schools and districts in two categories: absolute and improvement ratings.
Absolute ratings directly reflect test scores, such as the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests (PACT) and the High School Assessment Program (HSAP). The bar for absolute ratings rises each year, so schools must improve academically to maintain even the same rating from one year to the next.
“Our accountability system's increasing performance targets make good ratings harder to achieve,” said State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex. “Schools have to improve significantly each year or see their report card ratings decline.”
Improvement ratings measure the academic progress of the same group of students as they move from one grade to the next. For example, a fourth grader's test scores would be matched to his or her third grade scores for comparison.
After data is compiled and analyzed, districts and schools are given a rating of “excellent,” “good,” “average,” “below average” or “unsatisfactory” in both the absolute and improvement categories.
Newberry saw no improvements this year in absolute ratings. Scores at five schools dropped; while 10 schools, including the Career Center, stayed the same.
Absolute results showed that 60 percent of Newberry County schools are either below average or unsatisfactory. This percentage has nearly doubled since last year when approximately 33 percent of schools received these lower ratings.
Cynthia Downs, assistant superintendent for instruction, said that this can be at least partially attributed to the ever-rising standards set by the state. Several schools, she said, were fractions of a point from going up in ratings, but because they did not show enough progress, actually declined. South Carolina's performance goal states that by the year 2010, Palmetto State student achievement will be ranked in the top half of the states nationally. To achieve this, schools must show a certain rate of improvement each year.
“Once again the bar continues to rise, and it's very important that every school and every district strive for continuous improvement,” Downs said. “On the other hand, when the bar keeps rising at the rate it's rising, it makes it more and more difficult to demonstrate that you are making continuous improvement.”
At Mid-Carolina Middle School, for example, while the school's absolute rating has remained at a steady “average” for five years, its improvement rating has been “unsatisfactory” for four of those years, including this year.
“That's extremely frustrating when you're maintaining the average, but you're getting killed on the improvement ratings,” said MCMS principal Buddy Livingston. “I think we missed it this year by six-tenths of a point.”
Livingston added that while he's pleased with the “absolute” rating, the school is always trying to move up in ratings. In particular, he hopes the continued gender grouping at MCMS, which was expanded to seventh grade this year, will better accommodate students' learning styles.
To get scores up around the district, Downs said teachers are helping students set goals based on individual strengths and weaknesses. Teachers are learning how to better engage their students and are working together to develop lessons that are closely matched to state assessments and standards.
“We're nowhere where we need to be right now, but we're working on it,” she said.
And a sure sign Newberry is working in the right direction is the district's “excellent” improvement rating, Downs said.
“In order for us to come up through these categories and get into the ‘average' and the ‘good' and the ‘excellent,' we've got to make improvements,” she said, “so that's showing we did something this year to get there.”
In addition to the district as a whole, three schools, including the Career Center, saw an increase in their improvement rating. Five schools' ratings declined, and six remained the same as last year. And one school's improvement rating was reported incorrectly, its principal says.
Newberry High School's improvement rating reads “below average,” according to the released scores from the State Department of Education. However, NHS principal Barry Rosenberg says that the rating should be higher-at least “average,” if not “good.”
“That is a mistake, and it will be corrected,” he said, adding that this statement is based on the State Department's own numbers.
Newberry High's absolute rating is “below average' for the fourth year in a row. Rosenberg said that to bring this rating up, the school is focusing on its graduation rate and programs to better prepare students for testing.
And while the elements determining Newberry County Career Center's report card rating are not the same as other county schools, it was the only institution to receive an “excellent” rating in either the absolute or improvement category.
“The Career Center AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) and Report Card ratings are calculated somewhat differently than the high schools, but my opinion and the opinion of my staff, is that continued high expectations and a rigor of elements in the coursework all help in making students successful and achieving the gains necessary to receive this kind of recognition from the state,” said Career Center Director Don Lawrimore.
Career Centers are “graded” on how well students master their core subjects, graduation rates and the percentage of students that are placed in related areas of work after graduation.
“Some of our ratings are at 100 percent, and it is difficult to improve on that,” Lawrimore said, “but we still have some areas we need to work on.”
In addition to school and district ratings, Report Cards also include student-teacher ratios, dollars spent per student, absentee rates for students and teachers, the amount of instructional time, average teacher salaries and the socioeconomic status of students' families.
Report Cards are accessible to the public via the State Department of Education's Web site at dev.ed.sc.gov/topics/researchandstats/schoolreportcard/2007.