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Beyond the celebrations, data reveals a complicated portrait of the Clarke County School District

By Karen Sweeney Gerow

On Oct. 28, CCSD sent out a press release about 2019 CCRPI scores. You might have missed it. Classic City News posted the release on their Facebook page. Neither Flagpole nor Online Athens wrote about it. It was not on the homepage of the district website, but if you put CCRPI in as a search term, you could find it.

This is a bit different from the CCRPI data release in 2017. Then, the data and the reaction to it stayed in the news cycle for weeks. People still reference it today. Only 17% of Black students were proficient in English Language Arts in 2017. Dr. Means said, “The data forces you to cry. It’s that poor.” In August 2018, Means said, “Reading at proficiency level is literally a life-or-death issue. It is one reason why I am so disappointed in the disparities in performance between white and black students in the district.”

In 2019, only 17.69-percent of Black students were proficient in English Language Arts. Less than one percentage point growth in two years. This wasn’t mentioned in the press release last Monday. Why was it a crisis in 2017 but not even worth mentioning in 2019?

The 2019 press release didn’t focus on achievement at all, in fact. It reported on the overall CCRPI, which includes many factors other than achievement. The overall CCRPI score was adjusted two years ago and is about to be altered again. It’s an imperfect instrument and since they keep recalibrating it, it is difficult to compare across more than two years.

So, it made sense two years ago that the main focus of the district was on content mastery, defined as how well students have met the state’s standards for English, math, science and social studies according to test scores. It makes sense now, too, but for some reason the district press release focused on the overall scores.

The press release singled out nine schools for having an increase in their overall CCRPI score. There was little mention of content mastery, only to generally say that Reading and ELA are up and Math and Science scores are down. This is curious as content mastery was the entire focus of the 2017 data release. The press release indicated the following increases in overall CCRPI scores:

Cedar Shoals +6

Clarke Central +3

JJ Harris +16

Cleveland Rd +13

Whit Davis +10

Timothy +7

Coile +6.5

Stroud +5.5

Barnett Shoals +4

In the press release, Dr. Means is quoted as saying, “We are very proud of the tremendous growth those schools have made thus far.”

Was there tremendous growth in achievement? Are these the schools that have figured out how to use the myriad of changes in personnel and resources to the best advantage? The expected percentage points of growth outlined in the strategic plan was 6% per year or 12% over two years. Can one assume that “tremendous growth” would far exceed the expected growth of 12% over two years?

Apparently not. The graph below shows the percentage of students who scored in the proficient range on the ELA Milestones. The graph is limited to the schools that Dr. Means said are showing “tremendous growth.” It’s also limited to ELA because the district admits that math scores have declined. The red area shows 2019 scores. If you see blue showing through, that means the school actually showed negative growth. If the two scores align, then the growth was negligible. A few schools showed growth, notably Central, Cedar, JJ Harris, and Barnett Shoals.

Not a single school in the district met the priority #1 target in the strategic plan: “Growth on the Georgia Milestones assessments [will increase proficiency results] by 12 percentage points over a two-year period.” Of the schools identified as having made “tremendous progress,” three actually demonstrated negative growth over the two-year period.

To be fair, the district arbitrarily set the baseline data as 2018. I reject that for this analysis for the following reasons. 1. Dr. Means began making sweeping changes in October of 2017 based on the disparity in data indicating a profound crisis. His accountability for those changes begins in the 2018 test scores. Therefore, it makes sense to assess the effectiveness of said changes by using 2017 scores as the baseline. 2. When people argue against the status quo or make sweeping statements like “Our children can’t read!” they are basing it on the 2017 data release. Therefore, if we want to honestly take stock of how the district is progressing, it makes the most sense to compare 2017 scores to 2019 scores. The last two years have appropriately been focused on boosting achievement for African American students.

This is problematic. Of the schools that showed “tremendous growth,” three schools showed a decline in the percentage of African American students scoring proficient in ELA. Cleveland Rd. dropped from 18% proficient to 10%. Whit Davis went from 19.4% to 12.24% proficiency. There are two schools (not listed) where proficiency of African American students in ELA in grades 3 through 5 is less than 10%. Have district priorities shifted again? How are schools showing negative growth among African American students celebrated for tremendous progress? Isn’t this what Lanoue did - focus on the positive and bury the negative in reports no one asks to read?

I remember the board outrage when Dr. Means illuminated the disparity in proficiency rate of African-American students: Why hadn’t they known? There has been yelling about it at board meetings ever since. I was flabbergasted that the board was unaware in 2017. Teachers had been giving up planning periods for years for the purpose of analyzing data eight ways from Sunday, and the board never bothered to look at the data. I guess you could make the argument that they were never shown the data and for some reason it never occurred to anyone to ask how Black students were performing. Claiming ignorance of the data only works once. At this point, you should know to ask for it. How many people asked about the growth of African American students in ELA over the past two years? Did you receive answers?

I compiled all of this from publicly available data. The easiest to find, you should know, was from 2017. It’s in the Data Notebook, Section C, 2017 Milestones Subgroup Performance & Gaps. The only reason you didn’t have this information in 2017 is that no one cared to share it with you and you didn’t bother to ask. You don’t even have to ask this time. It’s here.

The other problem that this press release reveals is that the central office is so out of touch with the work of the schools they don’t even know what to celebrate. This is what happens when you have people who do not have education degrees in central office positions. For example, Barnett Shoals was the most mediocre in terms of growth in the press release, boasting only an increase of four percentage points in the overall score. What should have been celebrated is that BSES showed the greatest increase in terms of African American students scoring in the proficient range, up 12.30 percentage points in just two years. This is phenomenal. JJ Harris’ big achievement is not a 16-point overall CCRPI increase, which included a proficiency increase of only 0.05 percentage points. (Really, when you look at the static proficiency and a huge overall increase, that’s a sign to dig deeper to see how they managed to pull that off. Why isn’t there anyone analyzing this data who knows this?) JJ Harris’ huge news is that they scored 100% on Progress points, which measures how much further students have gone since last year in their learning. This score increased by 19.2 points; they outscored the district by 13.8 points and the state by 6.6 points.

I still live by the words of my mentor teacher, who got me through student teaching and the first three years of solo teaching. After a particularly tough day in the classroom, Pat Sheats said to me, “They will learn because of and in spite of you.” That the central office doesn’t even know to celebrate these great achievements tells me that teachers and students are succeeding despite, not because of, the central office.

There are other great achievements in this data and there are other great failings. Proficiency scores of African American students are still a great concern, as it should have been in 2015, 2016, 2017. You can’t criticize those who ignored the data then if you continue to ignore it now. Is this administration only interested in exposing the failings of their predecessors but perfectly willing to obscure their own? Accountability starts at the top.

Right now, the seats of the Classic Center are filled with CCSD teachers. For the second time this year, the district has rented out the Classic Center to chat with teachers on a planning day. It costs about $25,000 each time CCSD rents it. This is the fourth time they've done so. I'm going to assume that they're either getting chided or congratulated for their CCRPI scores right now.

The problem is...that's a whole lot of money to spend on a pep rally for scores that the district doesn't seem to understand. Maybe it's not a pep rally. A teacher described the August event as "renting out the Classic Center to tell us how much we all suck." Either way, maybe that money and time would be better spent actually looking at the data rather than rattling off the first scores you see.

Whit Davis is the only school to have gotten two shout outs from the superintendent: one in the press release as having shown "tremendous growth" and the other is this tweet (pictured). The only problem is, well, Whit *didn't* increase achievement ten points.

They increased their overall CCRPI score, which includes points for attendance, for parent/teacher surveys, for closing the gap, and many other things including achievement. But they did not "increase student achievement by 10 points."

In the table attached, you should only see green numbers. You don't want to see the percentage of students in the proficient category declining. The table should look significantly less...Christmassy. It should be green.

Look at English Language Arts. The percentage of African American students who scored proficient dipped slightly. The percentage of students overall who scored proficient is lower this year than last. So that's not where the 10-point proficiency increase is. White students -- a profound drop. They dropped more than 10 percentage points. Yikes.

Now, think about those numbers in terms of closing the achievement gap. If both sets of scores decline, but white scores decline at ten times the rate, the gap closes. Just not the way we want the gap to close. Closing the gap factors into the overall CCRPI score - the score with the 10-point increase.

Let's also look at the school climate score because...yikes. Honestly, these numbers are so bad it makes me think there is an error. The "violent incidents score" (which you want to be high, indicating fewer violent incidents) went from 100% to 39.34%. There were 183 incidents that could be categorized as battery, disorderly conduct, bullying, etc. etc. Maybe it's an error. Maybe it's a shift to more honest reporting about incidents (which I would support). But when you consider the data coupled with the anecdotes that we've heard about Whit Davis, the only possible interpretation is that someone needs to look into this more deeply. And soon.

What that press release should have celebrated about Whit Davis:

• Look at those scores of English Learners. Look at the scores of Hispanic students in ELA. They're not only showing growth in a sea of negative numbers, they're showing *profound* growth.

• Look at those math scores. Math scores were down across the district, but not at Whit Davis. Every subgroup - except white kids - showed an increase. Again, think about what this does to the achievement gap. It closes it, but this time the difference is based more on the increasing scores of African American students who were the only racial subgroup to meet the expected 6% increase. The decrease of almost 5 percentage points in proficiency among white students here is still dragging down the excitement about closing the gap in this case, but at least this was based on a significant increase in proficiency among African American students and not reliant on a significant decline in white scores.

Are we being lied to intentionally? Or does this demonstrate a lack of understanding about the scores? I'm not sure which I'm more comfortable with.

Restating my last post - If the central office doesn't even know what to celebrate in these scores, I think it's safe to assume that the achievements that are happening at Whit are happening despite, not because of, the central office.

Karen Sweeney Gerow is a former CCSD Teacher and founding director of the private Double Helix STEAM School in Athens

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1 Comment

The author’s tag line should include that she owns a private school in Athens. Also curious if she reports her data to her student’s parents regarding the progress and success of her own students and their academic achievement gap.

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