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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Analysis of Test Scores Shows Room for Improvement for Davis Schools

As a member of this community for what is now going on 11 years, the mantra I have continually heard is how good the schools are in Davis. It is not something new for me however, because I grew up in a school district that was much like Davis', near the top year after year in school performance by most of the standard measures.

The question has always been whether the Davis schools are really as good as everyone has said and there is now data that puts that proposition to the test. To the credit of the school district, they were not running from it on Thursday when it was presented.

When evaluating the Academic Performance Index (API), most of the schools continued to excel by these measures. Each school obtained a score, that score was placed in rank order and placed into deciles from 1-10. All of the schools as expected scored within a range of the 8th to the 10th decile--the top of the scale. On average, the district as usual placed was in the top 90 percent range--befitting our expectations that this is one of the best school districts in the state.

And there is no denying that. But you might suggest that a measure that places Davis on a scale with some the inner city schools may be telling us more about socioeconomic factors and less about the actual quality and skill of the schools.

And so a school characteristic index (SCI ) was calculated which compared schools with similar SCI score--those 50 schools just above the SCI and those just below the SCI. The scores were then sorts from highest to lowest API and divided into deciles.

What characteristics were used to create the SCI? Student mobility, Student ethnicity, socioeconomic status, teachers who are fully credentialed, teachers who hold emergency credentials, students who are English learners, average class size, whether the school operates a multi-track, year-round educational program, grade span enrollments, number of GATE students, number of students with disabilities, reclassified fluent-English-proficient students, and students who participate in migrant education program.

In other words, instead of comparing Davis schools with all schools, or Davis schools with schools like those in the cities, you are now comparing Davis to similar schools and similar characteristics.

How do Davis schools fare when compared with similar schools? Not nearly as high. On the statewide rank, all of the schools scored in the 8th decile and above including seven that scored in the 10th decile. In the similar school rank, only North Davis Elementary school scored above average at 8. All of the others were five (average) or lower (below average).

Curriculum and Instruction Director Clark Bryant presented the data at Thursday's meeting.

"In our similar schools ranks, our performance is not as strong as it is for the statewide ranking so although we have high performing schools when we compare our schools to schools with similar demographics there is a significant decrease."

What does this all mean? One of the interesting aspects of these findings is that in the past they would not have been presented to the public--and in fact, haven't been presented in public. One of the differences with the new superintendent, is that these unpleasant findings are being discussed and not glossed over.

Mr. Bryant said:

"We would hope and expect that our schools are scoring in the above average range for similar schools--so this is something that we want to focus on."

This led to a lengthy discussion about what could be done about these scores. As some remarked, this discussion was breath of fresh air, not only to have a chance to discuss education but to see the staff not being defensive, not trying to play down these scores or findings, but rather accepting them and talking about ways to improve them.

That is perhaps the good news. The bad news is that the impression I got from the administration was that the problem was perhaps not enough focus on the specifics that would be on the exams. In other words, the solution was to teach better toward the test.

Call me old school, but I have never been a proponent of all of these tests. Back in 1994, when I ran for school board in San Luis Obispo, the trend was moving more tests as a means to measure school performance and hold schools accountable. The problem is that if you teach toward tests, what is on those tests get emphasized at the expense of things not on the test. Presumably if a test is good enough or varied enough, that would be alright, but in practice it does not seem to be.

As we have increased the amount of testing, I am not sure we have increased the amount of student knowledge. In fact, ten years or so of watching the performance of first year UC Davis students, might have led me to the opposite conclusion, it was my observation that the student knowledge base has declined if anything. Students leaving high school and entering a fine university still lack basic writing and critical thinking skills. One of the first lesson these kids learn is that what got them an A in high school gives them a C in college. Simply regurgitating all of the information from a class does not make for a good answer in college.

Nevertheless the testing trend is larger than Davis Joint Unified School District. Though it was heartening last night to read a letter to the Davis Enterprise that called some of this testing to task.

Finally I agree that it was reassuring to listen to a frank discussion about improvements that could be made in the local school district when the line for so long had been that the Davis schools could do no wrong.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting