April 28, 2009

All quiet on the Unified front, but test scores show difficult task facing school district

Racine Unified put out its annual WKCE test results today, and we'll get to the results in a few paragraphs. But first a note on coverage of the school district in recent months.

It's been uneventful since Dr. James Shaw took over as superintendent. After years of public scrutiny, the School Board and district administrators have had some relative quiet to go about their business.

The main reasons for the change are:

1. Reporter Brent Killackey left The Journal Times. Brent, with his depth of knowledge on school issues, was basically a School Board member. He reported volumes of information about school finance and the district's inner workings any paper would be hard-pressed to match.

2. Publisher Dick Johnston left the paper. That's important because Johnston was tied in with Brian Dey and Randy Bangs, two former School Board members who raised questions about Unified's finances. They fed stories to Johnston and Johnston made it clear he wanted them in the paper. (Dey just emailed to say he never met Johnston. -db)

3. The combination of Brent's skill - he wrote five stories a week just on Unified - and Johnston's borderline editorializing made the school district a major point of public discussion. Since both left, the JT relaxed its coverage of Unified. (Consider the paper's upbeat report on today's results.)

4. This may be for the best. Lost in many discussions of Unified is the simple fact that thousands of students learn every day. Are they ideal conditions? No. Is there room for improvement? Probably. But for most students and families, our public schools work.

5. The district faces remarkable obstacles. Over half of its students live in poverty. Its buildings are decrepit. Budgets tighten every year. Its public reputation is in shambles. And still, the doors open, teachers teach and in a couple of months, thousands of teenagers will graduate. For all its problems, the system works.

OK, on to the WKCE (Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam) results. It's tough to spin good news out of the numbers. Only a handful of grades met the thresholds established in reading and math scores. None of the high schools met the state requirements.

In its press release, the district emphasized positive numbers among elementary students, who showed progress in third and fourth grade reading. They also said students appear to be sustaining progress as they move up grades.

But the district is always going to struggle when it's dealing with this:
The level of poverty among our students continues to increase and we know that economically disadvantaged circumstances remain a factor in readiness to learn. There are 57.7% elementary, 52.1% middle, and 48.8% of our high school students who are identified as qualifying for Free or Reduced Lunch, an indicator of economic disadvantage, compared to 55.8%, 48.4%, and 45.8% respectively last school year.
Statewide, this percentage is currently 34.7%; last year statewide it was 32.9%.
I've tried to find examples of school systems succeeding in areas with high poverty rates. But the reality is it doesn't happen. School administrators can work around the edges, but they have little effect on the societal pressures that undermine the education of our children.

That said, check out the results for yourself. Here are the results and statements from the district:


  1. The article states that none of the High Schools met the state requirements, looking a the cohort scores comparing all the schools to the state, Walden III 10th grade surpasses the state score and beating the Annual Measurable Objective percentage so what are the state requiremtns they're not meeting?

  2. The WKCE is a joke.

    This test is given in fall and the individual results are given to the teachers now, in spring, with less that two months left in the school year. This is more about holding aggregate scores over heads than it is about the individual needs of the students.

  3. The state tests are not meant to work for the individual student. These tests are to determine whether or not the curriculum that is taught by a district meets the educational objectives of the state as a whole. In other words, these scores tell educators whether their methodology is working to achieve state standards. It is the content and delivery methods that are measured, not the child.

  4. I am appalled at Goodland School's numbers. That is where my children would go. I think we need to look at Gifford's curriculum to see what they are doing well. Their numbers were the highest in the district. I also must say, way to go REAL school. Those numbers were also very high! I think the principals in the schools need to take a look at their staff and if their numbers continue to drop then it is time to make some changes. It is easy to take the easy way out and say our school's poverty level is high and therefore those children can not learn. I think that is a load of something. If you teach those students, they can learn. They may need extra attention and respect, but they can do it if you believe in them.

  5. I would like to know how changing the test from February to November made a difference in scores. That would be at least 3 more months of learning before taking the test. If the state really wanted the students to succeed, they would either move the test back to February or to November of their junior year. Many of these students (especially in HS math) are being forced to take tests in subjects that they haven't taken yet.

  6. In regards to Anon 5:21 comments, scores can not be blamed soley on teachers. If we are looking at the school iteself, and not taking into consideration the family and environment, then we need to see the whole picture. Principals and central office need to provide more professional development for staff. Additionally, everyone in the schools from teachers to principals to support staff to the cafeteria workers need to create a positive climate in the schools so students can feel safe and supported to learn.

  7. 5:21, if you're going to compare curriculums at Goodland and Gifford, compare the student base and their situations as well, as economic and learning disability factors play a much bigger part in the differences you see in test scores. Goodland has one of the highest percentages of students qualifying for special-ed in Unified as well as one of the highest percentages of poverty-level families. The student population at Gifford is the closest thing Unified has to a private school.

  8. I don't buy the economic excuse. This excuse came up just as we were not allowed to use skin color as an excuse anymore. There is no reason based on family income that should make it so a child cannot get a decent score on the state test. We are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to educate these students. Find an effective way, bottom line.

  9. "Find an effective way..." Were it only so simple to educate a child from a struggling background. Nobody -- and I mean nobody -- in this country has found a solution within the existing educational framework. And it's not for a lack of foundations and studies and experiments. Here's the thing: We've never been able to do it. It's only the testing movement in recent years that has identified our failures so blatantly. Now we're beating up the educators for failing kids -- when they've never been able to educate all kids from all backgrounds.

    What we need is a revolution in education -- something that will break the stranglehold that unions have on schools. When people come in to make massive change, the unions just stand in the way. Say what you will about Dr. Thomas Hicks, but he had a clear education plan (how he ran the business side of the district was another matter), had the backing of some pretty smart people at the Panasonic Foundation and really seemed in a position to make things happen. But the unions fought him every step of the way, including picketing a banquet where he was receiving an award for his efforts.

    We'll never know for sure, but I wonder what would have been possible if the unions had gone along and people had actually tried the educational initiatives that were on the table. Instead, all we got was more of the same educational practices that have failed us.

    And until we get some real change within the educational system in this country, we're not going to meet the needs of all students, especially those who don't have the full support at home.