RACINE — Each November, officials, parents and taxpayers in public school districts across Wisconsin eagerly await the release of state report cards aimed at indicating how their districts and schools performed the previous year.
With the Racine Unified School District facing the specter of area villages breaking off from the district should it receive a failing grade for the 2016-2017 school year, The Journal Times is taking a look at how the state Department of Public Instruction calculates report cards.
When taxpayers and parents see annual state report cards, they could easily assume that they are a gauge of a performance from year to year.
But they would be wrong.
The four “priority areas” used to calculate a district’s or school’s score are, in many cases, based on three years’ worth of standardized test scores, with the most recent year given greater weight. When it comes to the rate at which a district or a school is closing achievement gaps, DPI looks at five years of test scores.
State education officials say the approach can help to provide more balanced results by minimizing the effect of a handful of poorly performing students in one year.
But for districts that have seen greater achievement in the most recent year, lower scores from previous years can be a drag on scores in the individual “priority areas.”
Those priority areas measure student achievement and growth. They also measure how well the district is closing achievement gaps among low-income students, English language learners, minority racial and ethnic groups; and how well students are achieving milestones used to gauge success in college and later life.
At Unified, where administration officials say they have been working hard to boost test scores, the approach is frustrating.
“If you are a district that is rapidly improving, any averaging from two years ago kind of weighs you down,” Superintendent Lolli Haws said. “These report cards are more about what was, than what is.”
After DPI calculates the individual priority scores — taking off points for high drop-out and absenteeism rates — the agency crunches those scores to give every district and public school an “overall accountability” score.
Based on a scale of between 1 and 100 points, the score indicates whether or not that school or district is meeting or failing to meet expectations.
To arrive at district scores, the state looks at all students in a district as one large pool. A poor-performing student counts as a poor-performing student regardless of whether he or she came from a high-performing school. Likewise, a high-performing student counts as a high-performing even if they attend a struggling school.
Last November, Racine Unified, as a whole, received an overall accountability sore of 48.1, landing it in category of “fails to meet expectations.”
That score, and the corresponding report card, marked the first time in two years that the state drew up report cards for districts and schools.
In that intervening year, the agency changed the way it measures schools and districts, giving greater weight to growth than achievement, especially in schools and districts with a higher poverty rate.
That change negatively affected Unified, which has long had a high poverty rate. The district’s current poverty rate is 59 percent. The report card for the 2016-2017 school year that will be coming out later this month will be based on the district’s poverty rate that school year.
“Because we are a high-poverty district, all of our score is basically based on how many kids met that growth (benchmark),” Haws said.
How DPI arrives at the priority scores used to calculate whether a school or district is making the grade, has everything to do with how students in grades three through eight — and, in some cases, high school juniors — perform on tests.
For students in grades three through eight, the district uses the math and English scores from the Forward exam, the short-lived Badger Exam; and for students with severe cognitive disabilities, a test called Dynamic Learning Maps.
The performance of high school juniors is measured using English and math proficiency scores from the ACT. The state now requires all juniors to take the test regardless of whether they are college-bound.
To gauge achievement, DPI looks at how well students in those grades are performing based on students in other districts.
When it comes to growth, which only measures students in grades three through eight, the state takes the student’s previous-year score, then uses a formula to calculate how much better they should be doing in a subsequent year.
If a student hits that mark, a school and district will get points. If the student doesn’t, the school or district will not get those points.
After achievement and growth, the state looks at those same test scores to determine how a district or school is doing at closing achievement gaps, and whether all students are on track when it comes to English and math skills, as well as graduation rates.
The state also looks at attendance rates, as well as graduation rates, to measure whether a district or school is succeeding at keeping students on track.
The state Legislature has placed a one-year wait on any state takeover of failing schools that would have been triggered as the result of failing district grade for the 2016-2017 school year. But Unified still faces the possibility of Mount Pleasant, Caledonia and Sturtevant breaking away from the district should it receive another failing grade.
If that does happen, the villages would have the ability to go to referendum next year to ask voters if they want to form their own school district, or partner with one or more of the other Racine suburbs to form a district.
A failing score also would require DPI to study what impact those districts might have on property taxes and categorical school aid.
Given the stakes, the district is spending $1 million of a roughly $3.76 million budget surplus on improving the district’s state report card for this school year.
Much of the $1 million is funding one-time expenses such as curriculum aimed at boosting reading and math skills. The district also is using the money to ensure smaller class sizes, better ACT preparation and to hire reading and math coaches.
“There are some things that whatever we do this year, it won’t change the report card next fall,” Haws said in September. “We are trying to be very strategic and using the money on things that will move that report card next fall.”
CALEDONIA — Frank and Barbara Suetholz’s home on the 2100 block of 5½ Mile Road was surrounded by ash trees before the emerald ash borer infestation hit.
Two large trees in the front had been the parent trees of the two to three dozen that surrounded the back porch and the yard. Barbara said they’ve had to hire a tree service three times this year to clear each of the affected trees.
“We felt so bad; I wanted to do something to feel good,” said Barbara. “If life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.”
Before cutting down the two parent trees in the front, they called the River Bend Nature Center in Caledonia, where the staff put them in touch with Sherry Lou Martin, a chain-saw artist. Martin said that when she met with the Suetholzes, they knew they wanted to do some kind of carving, but didn’t know what.
“I just start asking them questions like, ‘Why is that tree so special?’ ” said Martin. “I think that as we stood in the front yard that memory came back to her.”
When the Suetholzes moved into their home in 1966, they got their first of many rough collies, a skinny male with named Lad.
“He was a poor specimen of a collie,” said Barbara.
But Lad was a hunter, which is unusual for a collie.
“While he was here we didn’t have any varmints around,” said Frank. “Didn’t realize until he died how many we had in this area.”
In 1973, as a group of housing developments were going up, more wildlife were moving across Frank and Barbara’s yard. One day, Lad was in the yard when he spotted a big raccoon and the skinny little collie managed to chase the large critter up a tree.
“That was the biggest thing he’d ever caught,” said Barbara. “He was so proud. All day, he was parading around under that tree.”
Not that the raccoon was harmed or concerned.
“That raccoon didn’t worry about it,” said Frank. “He went to sleep.”
Later that night they brought Lad inside so the raccoon could make its escape.
The story became the stuff of family legend, a story that Barbara liked to retell and their children remembered, even though they were all young when it happened.
For Martin, it seemed the perfect fit for the two last ash trees. One tree was sawed down and fashioned into a base for the sculpture of Lad that Martin carved out of pine. The second tree, which was the actual tree the raccoon climbed, they trimmed down to the fork and placed the pine raccoon statue in the crook where it had waited.
Since Martin installed Lad and the raccoon on Halloween, the Suetholzes have noticed cars slowing down as they pass the house. Barbara said she loves the way Martin captured Lad’s essence.
“He looks so proud with his chest all puffed out,” she said.
Martin said she loves turning people’s tales into artwork.
“I get to know people and I get to hear their special stories,” she said. “There’s nothing better than being able to articulate that story into art.”