Letter to the Editor: “On the Bottom” by Clark Palmer
By Clark Palmer
Recent Facebook discussions and the exchange of essays in a local newspaper with a person claiming “over 30 years experience dealing with school-related data” has resulted in a messy misunderstanding over the definitions of terms: “accountability” vs. “academic achievement.”
“Academic achievement” is the results obtained, via standardized testing, to gauge a student’s level of acquired knowledge (education). It is an excellent answer to the question: Is each student learning/mastering subject matter (such as English, mathematics, science)? This is of high importance to me, because each graduate faces the real world basically alone, armed with the education provided by his schooling.
“Accountability” includes some academic achievement information but also considers a myriad of other factors. It is more of interest to bureaucrats and legislators than individuals. It is a measure of institutional quality rather than the institution’s ability to educate, and includes factors not relevant to a graduate’s career path.
What upsets me is when someone confuses my emphasis on “academic achievement” and its importance to a student’s future, with their notion of “accountability” and its impact on their own personal career or social standing, having virtually nothing to do with classroom results.
The latest dust-up occurred when I was accused of supplying “false” and “inaccurate” information about our District’s “performance” or ability to educate our students. Using State Department of Public Instruction (DPI) “report cards” to justify claims, it is stated that Antigo school district’s “accountability” number indicated adequate performance and implied that our “high poverty rate” is the main source of our problems, if we have any. A statistical accountability-poverty rate table was shown, claiming Antigo ranks fourth of thirteen districts within a 60-mile radius with enrollment exceeding 1,000. This is misleading and further explained below.
I also use DPI data, but I stick to the “hard-number” scores related to academic achievement, namely English and mathematics skills, also available on the school DPI “report card” but are obscured in favor of an “accountability number” which includes subjective “softball” factors, such as “closing gaps” and “growth” and other “accountability” factors, including attendance, “economic disadvantage” and more. These extra “ballpark” numbers are easily manipulated.
As a taxpayer, parent, and citizen of the Antigo district, I want assurance that students are receiving a good education, which should be the paramount mission of Antigo’s schools; that’s real “accountability,” and the numbers tell a gloomy story.
It’s okay to differ on both the goals and results of school performance; but, when I am further denigrated as having a “close mind,” I chose not to return the personal insults, but to consider the source. I researched the accountability-poverty table, the 60-mile/13-district sample, for validity.
Every number I have ever reported is true and accurate and I name my sources. So, to prove my point about our abysmal academic scores, I consulted not only DPI but another impartial and reputable national clearinghouse for school statistics called www.schooldigger.com for objective, fact-based, student-oriented, “hard-number” information. They rely on State and Federal government agencies for information.
Here’s what I found:
23, not 13, districts met the 60-mile, 1000-student requirements that my “accuser,” not me, placed on the discussion. Quite a difference, don’t you think?
For the same districts in the published 13-district table, Antigo ranks last in overall scholastic performance (standardized testing). The source is DPI. Furthermore, comparing apples to apples, we rank #324 of 428 rated Wisconsin school districts (source: Schooldigger). Our students average 20% below the state average in math, about 10% below in English skills (source: DPI), and less than three out of ten Antigo-district eighth graders read at or above grade level (source: DPI).
Our high school is last academically among area schools on the 13-district list (source: DPI). 23rd out of 24 high schools within 60 miles (source: DPI) and ranked #368 among 407 Wisconsin high schools ranked by Schooldigger. Wittenberg-Birnamwood High is #103, Wausau East is #154; Merrill is #278 and Medford #179. What’s our excuse? Even the DPI scorecard places us on the bottom at 53.5 (0.6 points from “failing”), according to DPI.
So, accountability or academic achievement – we are lose-lose.
Poverty is not a primary reason for lack of academic performance. While Antigo has some excellent educators, the staff overall must be judged poor-to-mediocre to obtain these results. There are plenty of schools out of the 23 nearby with a “poverty” rating over 40% that do much better than Antigo.
So, all you “open-minded” citizens, taxpayers, and voters now have the full story. We can do better – much better. Full discussion is deferred to another time, but the concise solution is this:
- better/different elected School Board members
- aggressive recruitment of qualified/proven educators
- a reformed management/administrative staff at headquarters and the high school; and,
- termination of needless consolidation efforts, instead concentrating on student needs instead of administrative desires; we have the money – are we ready to work for success
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