LINCOLN — To make Nebraska's public schools better, the state's top educator would rather shine a bright light than swing a big stick.
Nebraska Education Commissioner Roger Breed said Tuesday's release of a sea of new school performance data, including new rankings and growth measures, reflects his belief that public disclosure of schools' strengths and weaknesses can bring about improvement without drastic intervention.
“Till I'm persuaded that isn't going to work, I'm sticking to that position,” he said.
The new data compiled for the Nebraska Performance Accountability System were released as part of the annual State of the Schools Report.
The state's approach to accountability is to “light up the data,” challenge districts to improve and give them time to get better, he said.
But what if some schools continue to struggle?
State Sen. Greg Adams of York, a former high school teacher who is chairman of the Legislature's Education Committee, said the next step for state officials is to devise a system that dictates when the state would intervene at struggling schools or districts.
The system would look at about three to five years' worth of data from the accountability system, he said.
Adams said he's not sure what the intervention would look like or what exactly would trigger the state to step in.
In 2011, he proposed a bill that would have used graduation rates, test scores and student progress, along with other measures, to decide whether schools were performing well enough.
If a school fell short, the state would form an intervention team to develop an improvement plan. Schools that didn't improve after five years would face consequences, including a possible loss of accreditation.
Adams said he might pitch a similar bill during next year's session.
Breed said he's not convinced that state officials have better answers to improving achievement than do local school districts. Nor is he convinced of the wisdom of “a blaming, shaming reorganization” of a school, the kind of aggressive intervention models that involve removing principals or firing teachers.
Tried in other states, those models haven't always raised achievement, he said.
Breed said the performance accountability system gives educators, parents and policymakers more data than ever before with which to lay thoughtful, detailed plans to improve schools.
Local school officials are busy digesting data from the new system, including the first-ever performance rankings for the state's 249 school districts.
Overall, the districts fared well, with about three out of four showing growth and improvement on last school year's state tests.
Growth rankings reflect progress toward mastering state academic standards by the same group of students as they move from grade to grade.
Improvement reflects how well students in a particular grade compared to different students in the same grade a year earlier.
A tiny northeast Nebraska district proved to be a powerhouse in both areas.
The Scribner-Snyder Community Schools, 20 miles northwest of Fremont, had 227 students last school year. The district finished first for growth in math and reading and first for improvement in math.
It finished second for improvement in reading, behind Bancroft-Rosalie, also in northeast Nebraska.
Gov. Dave Heineman sent the Scribner-Snyder district a congratulatory note.
On average, the district's students in grades 3 through 8 increased their reading scores by almost 21 points and their math scores by 30 points as they advanced to a new grade from spring 2011 to spring 2012.
Superintendent Ginger Meyer, who started her job in July 2011, said the district made changes last fall, doubling the amount of time kids in kindergarten through eighth grade were spending on reading, grammar and writing.
Since then, the district also has started using new textbooks for K-8 reading classes and K-12 math classes. The district has matched what was being taught at those grade levels to the state standards, which are what the state says students should learn in each subject at each grade level.
Nebraska's state tests are based on the state standards.
The Scribner-Snyder district had put off buying new textbooks for about 10 years because of recent and former consolidation plans, Meyer said.
“You never underestimate what people can do,” said Meyer, who credited district staff, the school board and the community for turning around the schools.
Districts that must educate poor and immigrant students have advocated that the state include a growth measure in its assessments.
They say it's unfair to judge them on scores alone because their kids start school with a deficit.
In growth in reading and math — the only two subjects in Nebraska's new test battery with two years of data — the Omaha Public Schools landed in the middle of the pack, ranking 109th and 132nd, respectively.
By comparison, the Millard Public Schools ranked 145th in reading growth and 178th in math growth.
OPS ranked in the top quarter of schools for improvement, a measure that compares students in a given grade this year to students in the same grade the previous year.
But the district ranked in the bottom 10 percent of Nebraska districts when considering proficiency scores alone on the state's standardized reading, math, science and writing tests.
ReNae Kehrberg, OPS assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said district officials “could not be prouder” of students and staff for the growth and improvement rankings.
OPS students in grades 3 through 8 bumped up their math scores by about 3 points and their reading scores by about 5 points as they moved from grade to grade from spring 2011 to spring 2012.
District and state officials both said high-scoring districts could find it hard to keep showing growth every year. That's because at the top of the scale, there's less room to improve.
The new system didn't tell Jane Stavem of the Lincoln Public Schools much new.
Stavem, associate superintendent for instruction, said district officials had already adjusted their schedule to give teachers more time to teach math. Lincoln, like other Nebraska districts, got its test scores from the state in August.
She also didn't endorse a system that lets the state take over school systems or buildings.
“We know, by and large, teachers are the experts,” Stavem said. “I don't think right now that's a direction our state is advocating.”
Steve Baker, superintendent of the Elkhorn Public Schools, said the district has been looking over the data.
“We're happy where we are, but we see opportunities for continued improvement,” Baker said.
The district is the only one in the state ranked in the Top 10 in all four categories — writing, reading, math and science.
Westside Community Schools officials, too, have crunched their numbers. School improvement plans already have been designed to address any weaknesses in test scores, said Susan Johnston, director of assessment.
The district, she said, always wants to do better. At the elementary level, scores have trended upward all four years. However, there are some groups it needs to work with.
“The way we get better is to teach reading and math very well,” she said, “and we have a very solid program in place.”
Of the state's districts, 198, or nearly 80 percent, demonstrated growth in reading; 181, or 73 percent, did so in math.
In other words, teachers in those districts were successful in teaching their kids to master at least a year's worth of state academic standards.
Breed cautioned against putting too much weight on any one measure.
“No school or school district should be judged on a single ranking,” Breed said.
Who's No. 1?
Reading status: Creighton Public Schools
Math status: Creighton
Science status: Ansley
Writing status: Elkhorn
Reading improvement: Bancroft-Rosalie
Math improvement: Scribner-Snyder
Reading growth: Scribner-Snyder
Math growth: Scribner-Snyder
Graduation rate: Aurora
How schools fared
District Reading growth (rank) Math growth (rank)
Bellevue 8.29 (54) ... 14.45 (17)
Bennington 5.74 (97) 1.42 (160)
Douglas County West 10.76 (31) 20.01 (7)
Elkhorn 8.23 (56) 7.88 (56)
Gretna 7.29 (71) 0.27 (177)
Millard 3.55 (145) 0.13 (178)
Omaha 5.05 (109) 3.3 (132)
Papillion-La Vista 8.01 (61) 9.93 (35)
Ralston 4.86 (113) 3.65 (125)
Springfield-Platteview 10.4 (34) 9.11 (41)
Westside 4.44 (120) 6.98 (67)
Lincoln 2.93 (154) -2.52 (212)
Grand Island 4.21 (129) 2.23 (144)
Kearney 6.25 (87) 3.67 (124)
Norfolk 7.41 (69) 5.71 (86)
Source: Nebraska Department of Education
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