Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Changing demographics challenge school district

Test scores show district doing well compared to state average

Express Staff Writer

Changing student demographics in the Blaine County School District are affecting local school ratings by the Idaho State Department of Education, but schools here seem to be faring well academically anyway.

Data released at a special school board meeting on Monday showed that the district ended the 2011-12 school year with about a quarter of its students, 23.5 percent, lacking proficiency in the English language. This compares with about 11.9 percent lacking proficiency in English in the 2003-04 school year. The classification is typically referred to as ‘lack of English proficiency” and is denoted by the acronym LEP in many reports.

The School District also is seeing an increase in the number of students classified as economically disadvantaged, showing 43.1 percent of the student population denoted as such at the end of the 2011-12 school year, compared to 24.7 percent for 2003-04.

Jerry Hutchins, district director of technology, testing and database management, noted that the demographic changes represent new “academic challenges” for educating students in Blaine County.

“That kind of makes a shift with what’s going on with our students,” Hutchins said. “If a student is just learning English, it’s pretty difficult to pass at English and language arts.”

Hutchins and Superintendent Lonnie Barber presented data on academic progress and state ratings for about two hours at Monday’s meeting to members of the school board, about a dozen administrators and about a dozen members of the public.

The special meeting followed release in late August of the new Idaho State Department of Education’s new five-star rating system, with five stars being the top rating. Blaine County schools ranked from a low of two stars for Bellevue Elementary School to a high of five stars for Silver Creek High School. The remaining six schools in the district received rankings of three or four stars.

The new ranking system considers not only Idaho Standards Achievement Test scores in reading, math and language arts but also considers how individual students are growing academically from year to year as they take the tests.

Hutchins said school officials throughout the state are still trying to figure out a “mind-boggling” formula that the state used to reach the ratings.

“When you look at all this data, it’s easy to see why it’s difficult to understand,” Hutchins said. “Although you get one, two, three, four or five stars, there’s a lot of data behind them.”

He noted that the district is trying to obtain additional information from the Idaho State Department of Education to better understand the system.

Regardless of the ratings, Hutchins and Barber presented data indicating that student academic growth, as measured by test results by individual students from year to year, shows that both the district’s LEP and economically disadvantaged students typically exceed the state average for the same classifications of students.

In reading, math and language arts, Blaine County School District LEP and economically disadvantaged students typically score higher on tests than the average for similar categories of students elsewhere in the state.

Barber noted that the district has the highest percentage of LEP students of any of the state’s largest 31 school districts, which account for total enrollment of 82 percent of all K-12 students in Idaho.

He acknowledged that the high number of LEP students here tends to drag down overall test scores for the district’s student population. However, he and Hutchins presented data that when only non-LEP students’ scores are counted, here and elsewhere, the Blaine County School District scores at the top or near the top among the largest 31 school districts in every grade and scholastic category.

“We have to understand what our population is to see if we’re doing a good job, and I think we are,” Barber said. “We’re doing a good job for our kids, but we’re never going to be satisfied.”

Terry Smith:

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