Jefferson Twp. schools lead way in reading improvement

Coming Saturday: A look at graduation rates

Tiny Jefferson Twp. Local Schools ranked third in the state in K-3 Literacy improvement last year, one of the local highlights on a day of controversy, as Ohio released the first half of the 2014-15 state report card Thursday.

Jefferson Twp., a district that has struggled in past years, was the only core Dayton-area district to score an “A” on K-3 Literacy improvement. A handful of others — Springboro, Bethel, Franklin, Wayne Local and Kettering — earned Bs.

K-3 Literacy measures what percentage of a district’s struggling kindergarten through third-grade readers were brought up to speed in a year’s time.

But there was much confusion and debate among educators about how the K-3 Literacy grades were calculated.

Fairborn was one of 157 districts that went ungraded on K-3 Literacy, because the state said it didn’t have enough “off-track” young readers to measure. Curriculum director Sue Brackenhoff was surprised that the Ohio Department of Education listed 100 percent of Fairborn’s kindergarteners as “on-track” in their initial diagnostic test last school year. She said she made multiple calls to ODE on Thursday to get an explanation.

“Knowing our district, that’s not the typical pattern,” Brackenhoff said. “(ODE said) it had to do with the metrics they were using, and some last-minute changes (recalibrating cut scores). It kind of makes you nervous about the rest of it.”

Data questions

The Dayton area did not have any school districts score among the bottom 20 in the state in K-3 Literacy improvement. Dayton Public Schools was the only local district to receive an “F,” and it trailed most of the state’s other large urban public districts.

But DPS also questioned some of the state data, declining interviews and releasing a short statement.

“ODE communicated to districts a number of known concerns regarding the data released today,” the statement said. “We are working through these issues and will not be commenting on the report card until these issues have been addressed.”

Dayton pointed to an ODE note recently sent to school districts identifying five “known issues” with report card data. One of those said certain students were being improperly counted in third-grade reading guarantee calculations.

Vandalia-Butler superintendent Brad Neavin suggested the state is not measuring his district’s K-3 Literacy improvement properly, a contention state officials denied.

State law requires kindergarten through third-grade students who are behind in reading to be placed on Reading Improvement and Monitoring Plans until they catch up.

Neavin said his district keeps many students on those RIMPs even after they catch up, to make sure they don’t backslide. But he and his curriculum leaders said the state appears to counting those students as if they never reached “on-track” status. Vandalia-Butler was one of many local districts to receive a “D” on K-3 Literacy.

ODE spokeswoman Kim Norris responded that districts are “not penalized for keeping on-track students on a RIMP.”

Tweaked scale

Some districts also questioned why the K-3 Literacy grading scale changed this year. Chris Woolard, senior executive director for accountability at ODE, told state media last week that the grading scale would be based on the same data as last year’s scale.

But the floor to earn a “D” increased five percentage points, and the minimum for a “C” rose four points. That meant Dayton got an “F” instead of a “D,” and about 10 districts, including Vandalia-Butler, Miamisburg and Northmont, got Ds instead of Cs.

Norris said ODE is “using last year’s state average — however, we have refined that average based on some additional data which has created a higher bar this year.” Asked what the additional data was, Norris said she was not sure.

The three pieces of the report card released Thursday were K-3 Literacy, graduation rates and the “prepared for success” data, which tracks honors diplomas, industry credentials and success on the ACT, SAT and other high-level tests.

The rest of the report card, including the main achievement and progress grades from last year’s state tests, will be released Feb. 25, because of delays in setting the grading scale for those tests.

Schools will not receive an overall rating or grade this year because of the transition through new testing systems.

Moving kids forward

Jefferson Twp. superintendent Richard Gates said his 450-student district surged in the K-3 Literacy scores by turning its PreK-6 Blairwood Elementary into a “literacy school,” with everything focused on reading.

“It’s not an accident,” Gates said, touting a small student-to-teacher ratio. “It’s a reflection of collaboration and complete buy-in, from the school board, the state support team, the Blairwood staff, as well as students and families.”

ODE’s Woolard said he “could definitely make the case” that the K-3 Literacy measure is the most important piece of this year’s report card.

“From a state perspective, we’re really emphasizing the importance of early literacy,” Woolard said. “Having kids reading in third grade is a lynchpin to success. (K-3 Literacy) is a measure of how well schools are providing interventions to get kids there.”

That measure is crucial for struggling districts that have hundreds of students who start off behind. But for other districts, it affects a very small subset. Districts such as Oakwood, Centerville, Tipp City and Cedar Cliff were not graded on K-3 Literacy, because fewer than 5 percent of their kindergartners were reading below grade level.

Centerville curriculum director Jeremy Miller said his district still takes the issue seriously. Students who score low on the spring pre-kindergarten screening get help in the summer before they start kindergarten. The children work with teachers and speech/language therapists, and parents are given strategies to work on at home.

Miller said that support continues through kindergarten and the first three grades.

“I think we’ve done a good job of trying to provide as many layers of support as possible with the classroom teachers,” Miller said. “Teachers provide instruction based on individual students’ reading levels. Then literacy specialists layer intervention on top of that.

“At the lower levels, it’s going to be focused on language, letters and words. At a third-grade level, it might be more about drawing inferences or how fluently the children read.”

About the Author