Wednesday was report-card day for Nebraska public schools.

The Nebraska Department of Education released test scores and performance ratings for more than 1,100 schools and 244 districts.

After a glimpse at the data, here are six takeaways:

Test scores didn’t move much

The percentage of all students scoring proficiently in English language arts was up 1 percentage point. Same for math. Proficiency in both subjects was 52% — that means just more than half of all students mastered the academic standards in each subject area.

Science proficiency dipped from 68% to 66%.

Students were tested last school year using the Nebraska Student-Centered Assessment System.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt has a couple of ideas on the static math and English proficiency.

“I do think we’ve set an extremely high bar, and it can be harder to move it up,” he said.

Poverty, meantime, has crept up statewide over the past decade and grown much faster in some communities, he said.

“Generally we’re seeing increases in poverty rates, increases in diversity and other challenges in our student populations,” he said. “So we’re fighting two trends, so for us to stay stable in results means they’re working pretty hard to keep that track going there, when the trend of demographics is kind of working in the opposite way.”

He said the science dip could reflect local districts transitioning to new science standards adopted in 2017.

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Most schools across the state are ‘Great’ or ‘Good’

The Education Department rates districts as Excellent, Great, Good or Needs Improvement.

Three-quarters of schools were rated either Great or Good, same as last year.

Twelve percent were Excellent; 13% were Needs Improvement.

Three metro Omaha districts boosted their ratings

This year, three districts, all at the western edge of the metro area, boosted their marks.

Bennington Public Schools and Gretna Public Schools rose from Great to Excellent; Douglas County West Community Schools rose from Good to Great.

Elkhorn Public Schools stayed Excellent.

Retaining the Great label were the Millard, Papillion-La Vista, Westside and Springfield Platteview districts.

The Ralston and Bellevue districts were rated Good.

Omaha Public Schools remained a Needs Improvement district.

Blomstedt said the ratings, while fairly stable, could see more change in the future.

“Over time we’re hoping to transition to more of a growth-based model,” he said.

Such an accountability system would reward schools that advance students academically more than one grade level in a year, he said.

Ups and downs in Omaha Public Schools

Some OPS schools went up, others down. For example, Standing Bear went from Good to Excellent. Buffett Middle went from Great to Needs Improvement.

Here’s how OPS high schools fared:

Bryan: Needs Improvement* (The asterisk is important. Although OPS had 45 schools rated as Needs Improvement, nine of those, including Bryan, could still get a better rating in November. State officials will be reviewing whether those schools met certain requirements beyond test scores, a sort of best-practices review.)

Burke: Good (dropped from Great)

Central: Good (stayed the same)

North: Good (improved from Needs Improvement)

Northwest: Needs Improvement (stayed the same)

South: Needs Improvement (stayed the same)

Metro district ratings track with poverty rates

The state’s accountability system is far friendlier to districts than the junked No Child Left Behind system.

However, it shares a feature of that system: The schools that get labeled low-performing appear to be the ones with high poverty.

State officials tried to design Nebraska’s system — Accountability for a Quality Education System Today and Tomorrow — so it wasn’t based entirely on test scores. It can take into account more subjective measures such as whether a school has community partnerships; engages parents; and maintains a safe, clean environment.

But it still gives the greatest weight to test scores. And test scores reliably align with poverty rates.

OPS, with 72% of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch and lower proficiency levels, received the Needs Improvement label. With their more moderate poverty rates, Ralston, 55%, and Bellevue, 36%, rated Good.

The three Excellent-rated metro districts — Elkhorn, Gretna and Bennington — have poverty rates of 8%, 9% and 10%, respectively.

The results raise questions about whether Nebraska’s accountability system measures economics or academics.

Federal push to review student groups kicked in

To comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the state identified 364 schools for performance concerns in various student subgroups.

The so-called Targeted Support and Improvement schools will be receiving some extra state support, though apparently not any money.

The designation stems from an examination of performance of 10 subgroups: black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Native American/Alaskan, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, two or more races, Asian, white, English learners, students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students.

Here’s a link to all of the results.

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

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joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

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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