The latest school standardized tests – state exams that comply with federal regulations – once again include some quirky results in the Aiken County School District and in other instances, leave administrators throughout the district shaking their heads.
Aiken Elementary School received a “C” grade this week, based on the state Palmetto Assessment of State Standards (PASS) battery of tests. Also the recipient of a “C” grade was South Aiken High School. All high schools get grades based on the high school exit exam, end of course tests and the graduation rate.
“Last year we had an 'A' and this year it's a 'C,' but not much has changed,” said Becky Koelker, the Aiken Elementary School principal. “I can't explain it, because I don't understand it.”
Of the district's seven high schools, only Midland Valley and Silver Bluff received “B” grades. Aiken High also received a “C.”
South Aiken Principal Bryan Skipper said he recognizes that the testing emphasis is on performance within sub-groups within the student population – such as low-income, minorities, English as Second Language and special education.
“We increased across the board in every measure of standardized testing,” Skipper said. “I wouldn't agree we're a 'C' school.”
Another unusual issue emerged in 2012 with “Focus Schools,” those considered to have the highest average of performance gaps between sub-groups, based on a federal accountability system. All are federal Title I schools, in that they have significant numbers of students qualifying economically for free and reduced lunch fees.
Six schools were designated to fit into that category – elementary schools Aiken, J.D. Lever, North Aiken and North Augusta and middle schools Paul Knox and Schofield.
As focus schools, all six last year and again this year are required to give parents the right to transfer their children to “receiver” schools with transportation provided. Those receiver schools again are Belvedere and Warrenville elementary schools and Jackson and New Ellenton middle schools.
North Augusta Elementary and Aiken Elementary were named focus schools despite “A” grades last year, and Lever won a state performance award. North Augusta again has an “A,” while Schofield received an “A” for the first time and is required to remain a focus school.
“The state recognizes there is a flaw in the system,” said Jeannie Glover, the Aiken district's Title I coordinator. The State Department has a federal waiver to operate its own tests, she said, and “they're looking to reapply for another waiver to make some tweaks.”
Last year, a total of 22 parents from six focus schools chose to move their children, “and that's not significant,” Glover said. “Most parents are happy with their schools.”
Koelker has no intention of agonizing over the “C” grade, but she considers such changes from year to year as anomalies. There are all kinds of sub-group issues, and it's not transparent looking at students in a sub-group and not the individuals, she said. One size fits all through this process, that is not the way to measure growth.
“One grade on one test does not tell the story,” she said. “We'll work hard because we always work hard.”
Schools have varying numbers of sub-groups with sufficient enrollment to count toward a state grade, Skipper said, and that can have an impact. The scoring process emphasizes the growth within those sub-groups, so a ceiling effect can emerge, he said.
“If you're already scoring fairly well, you don't have as much room to grow,” said Skipper. “We've been recognized with national attention and have an excellent report card. You have to look at all of this as a whole to measure the school fairly.”