The state issued its report card on Nebraska schools on Friday, and 24 districts were rated as needing improvement.

After a three-year hiatus, state officials released performance ratings for 1,110 public schools and 244 districts.

Twenty-four Nebraska school districts, including the Omaha Public Schools and several Native American districts, were deemed in need of improvement.

OPS’s classification dropped from “good” in 2015, when the ratings last came out, though officials in some metro-area districts cautioned against comparing the new ratings with prior ones.

Scott SchmidtBonne, director of research for OPS, said families and students in OPS have experiences and face challenges that are different from students in other communities.

He said it’s hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison when no other district in the state matches OPS’s size or demographics.

The classifications are part of a massive release of data that includes 2017-18 test scores for all schools and districts. It will be posted to the website of the Nebraska Department of Education.

The data provides the first look at student performance on the state’s new math test: About half of students scored proficient.

Statewide school district ratings

See the ratings for every district in Nebraska. Click on each for more information.
Green = Excellent, Yellow = Great, Orange = Good, Red = Needs Improvement

For some local school officials, the ratings will be as welcome as a lump of coal. Labels and ratings, they say, just stigmatize struggling schools, whose test scores typically correlate closely to the poverty of their students. But there can be a silver lining: The labeling, required under state law, will mean extra state assistance for schools dubbed lowest performing.

Schools and districts are sorted into four classifications — excellent, great, good or needs improvement — based primarily on state test scores.

Millard Superintendent Jim Sutfin said the state is demanding more today from students and teachers and urged caution about comparing the latest results with past ones.

“For years under No Child Left Behind we tested for minimum competency,” Sutfin said. “Now, Nebraska is focused on career and college readiness standards, as we should be. Today’s curriculum standards are more complex and that means the assessments are more difficult. We are pushing students to learn at a higher level.”

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In the years since the initial ratings, the state adopted new, more rigorous math and English language arts standards and assessments.

Officials also tweaked the formula used to classify schools, putting more weight on growth in students’ test scores.

State officials said the emphasis on growth could be one factor resulting in more schools, even some suburban ones, rating lower this time.

This year, 156 Nebraska schools, or one out of seven, are rated as needing improvement. That is up from 87 in 2015.

Douglas and Sarpy school ratings

Click on each school to see how it was rated by the state.
Red = Needs Improvement, Orange = Good, Yellow = Great, Green = Excellent.
For more information, visit the state's Nebraska Education Profile website.

But the ratings, released in the nick of time to meet year-end state and federal reporting deadlines, come with a caveat. The department is still reviewing classifications of about 100 schools, including some in OPS. Some of the schools under review could be moved up in the ratings, but those changes won’t be made public until next month. In some districts, no schools are being reviewed.

As it stands now, nearly three out of four schools across the state — 813 — are rated good or “great.”

The state gave 141 schools, or 12.7 percent, the top rating of excellent.

Among Omaha metro-area districts, the Elkhorn Public Schools are again classified as excellent. Repeating their ratings of great from three years ago were Millard, Papillion-La Vista, Westside, Gretna and Springfield Platteview.

Bellevue and Ralston remained at a good rating.

Bennington dropped from excellent to a great rating, and Douglas County West from great to good.

The Lincoln Public Schools rated great again.

Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt said parents shouldn’t be alarmed if their child’s school is labeled as needing improvement.

“It’s not a direct reflection on that individual student, but probably a reflection on the challenges that a school must overcome to continuously improve and get better,” Blomstedt said.

“It doesn’t mean that the school’s bad, it means that there’s some room for some improvement.”

State officials will use the ratings to assist more low-performing schools beyond just the three priority schools the state is already helping: Loup County Elementary in Taylor, Santee Middle School in Niobrara and Schuyler Central High School in Schuyler. No new priority schools are being named at this time.

Under a new federal requirement, however, the state used the data to identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of the state’s Title I schools — those receiving federal dollars because of high poverty. Those schools are eligible for additional state support, which will involve a comprehensive needs assessment, an improvement plan and extra resources to implement the plan.

That list of 27 schools includes 12 OPS schools, among them Benson Magnet High School, seven OPS elementary schools and Bryan, McMillan Magnet, Monroe and Norris Middle Schools.

In Nebraska and elsewhere, test scores tend to correlate closely with poverty rates, reflecting the challenges of educating economically disadvantaged students.

According to the state, 77 percent of the more than 52,000 students in OPS qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The state average is 46 percent.

Of the OPS students, 17 percent are English language learners compared with a state average of 7 percent.

SchmidtBonne, of OPS, said that after seeing the rankings parents might have some strong questions. But he said the classifications are just one metric used to gauge how students are doing.

The Elkhorn Public Schools’ free and reduced-price lunch rate is 8 percent. Associate Superintendent Cindy Gray said district officials have been pleased with the “excellent” classifications the state has given them since the system began, but there’s still room to improve.

Friday’s release offered a wealth of new results from the suite of tests called Nebraska Student-Centered Assessment System.

Here’s the big picture statewide:

  • Statewide, 51 percent of students scored proficient in math. Because it’s a new test, there’s no comparing with past years.
  • Proficiency in English language arts was unchanged. Fifty-one percent of students scored proficient, same as in 2016-17.
  • Science proficiency dipped from 70 percent to 68 percent.
  • On the 11th grade ACT exam, half the students met state expectations in English language arts and math, 54 percent in science.

The test results were factors in ratings drops at several Omaha metro-area schools and districts.

Gretna Superintendent Kevin Riley said a dip in scores and computer problems during testing contributed to Gretna Elementary being designated as needing improvement.

Representatives of the state’s testing contractor had to be on-site for days, he said.

“There were times when we had five people in the classroom trying to make sure the technology worked while our kids are testing,” he said.

“They helped us. But problems persisted after they left.”

The school has performed well through the years, sometimes leading the district, he said. Last year, however, the school’s English language arts proficiency dropped from 64 to 62 percent; math was at 48 percent; science fell from 88 to 79 percent.

Even so, he said the school was 0.23 of one percent from being a great school, but because the testing system factors in improvement in test scores, Gretna Elementary wound up in the needs improvement category.

Melissa Poloncic, superintendent of the Douglas County West Community Schools, said her district got knocked for lack of improvement as well.

Her district’s high school and middle school were rated great, and the elementary good, she said.

Third-grade scores dipped, she said.

“We did have a drop, and you take a big hit in the AQuESTT formula if you have a drop in achievement.”

Poloncic said state officials told her that because the elementary school had higher enrollment than the middle and high school, that tipped the district’s rating to good.

She noted that the elementary is a National Blue Ribbon School, an honor given to it by the U.S. Department of Education in 2015.

“These are the same teachers, same families, same great kids that were a Blue Ribbon school,” she said.

She said she’s concerned that the state is relying pretty heavily on a statistical curve in rating schools, where even good schools can be labeled as low performing, rather than benchmarking achievement of schools.

“We’re not going to make any excuses for it. We’ll keep working our hardest,” she said. “We were working hard before the ratings came out.”

The Bennington Public Schools slipped from excellent in 2015 to great.

Dee Hoge, the district’s assessment coordinator, pinned the drop on overall test performance.

Districtwide, Bennington proficiency in language arts dropped from 74 to 70 percent; science dipped from 88 to 85 percent; science proficiency was 65 percent.

“We did not perform as well as we have prior years, with the new math standards” and the state setting a higher bar for proficiency, Hoge said. “They raised the bar considerably, and so we have work to do, adjustments to make.”

The district is in the process of putting in place a new math curriculum, she said.

Bennington Superintendent Terry Haack said they’ll work hard to restore their rating.

“We’re very pleased that we’re in that great category, and we understand that we’ve slipped from excellent to great, and we’re going to strive to get back to that level,” Haack said.

He said test scores would be more helpful to districts if they were released earlier in the year.

Students took the tests last winter and spring. In past years, the Nebraska Department of Education released scores and classifications in early fall.

“The timing of this doesn’t allow for schools to make much adjustment moving into the spring,” he said.

Blomstedt said he intends to return scores to schools more quickly next year.

World-Herald staff writer Emily Nitcher contributed to this report.

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Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

Emily covers K-12 education, including Omaha Public Schools. Previously, Emily covered local government and the Nebraska Legislature for The World-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @emily_nitcher. Phone: 402-444-1192.

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