At Monday night’s Clarke County School Board meeting School Board member Robina Bouffault (White Post) continued to press the school division’s top managers for answers to plunging SAT and SOL scores at Clarke County High School as well as declines in seven of eleven grading categories at Johnson Williams Middle School.
“For FY11, of the eleven [CCHS Standards of Learning] subjects, eight are in decline and three have improved. There is only one score above 90%, whereas in FY10, there were six scores above 90%,” Bouffault said in an email distributed to all School Board members prior to last night’s session. “The FY11 detailed SOL results have now been published by the VDOE on their website. I have done a three-year comparison, with the information taken from the VDOE Report Card.”
Bouffault has publicly and privately expressed dissatisfaction with the division’s overall SAT and SOL test performance results and has said that even though all of the test scores still remain above the “pass” criteria, she is troubled about a trend toward declining performance.
“It is the downwards trend that matters,” Bouffault said. “Also, it is the fact that the VDOE ‘pass’ criteria itself that has dropped from 70% down to, in some instances, as low as 50% that is relevant. With lower pass requirements, scores should be up, not down.”
Bouffault has been persistent in her attempts to find answers to the declining school scores. At her insistence, school administrators convened a summit meeting with School Board members earlier this month in order to focus on concerns about student performance in the International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and Bridge programs. A similar upcoming School Board summit will look at issues with vocational and technical training.
School officials have argued that at least part of the reason that scores have fallen is due to a long term decline in funding from the Clarke County Board of Supervisors. Superintendent Murphy has stated Clarke County is 119th out of 132 Virginia school districts in terms of funding and is currently $1,800 less per student than the state average. Although some County officials have privately objected to Murphy’s statement, no one has attempted to publicaly refute those assertions.
Higher teacher salaries in neighboring counties have also been cited as a factor in drawing away experienced Clarke County teachers. Bouffault said that she agrees that Clarke County’s ongoing challenges in the area of teacher retention, as well as teacher training, do play some role in declining scores, but says that she still refuses to shift the responsibility for poor classroom performance away from school administrators.
“Yes, it can,” Bouffault said when asked whether a correlation may exist between declines in specific subject area performance where experienced teachers have been retained or lost. “There are some subjects where there is only one teacher, or perhaps two.” While Bouffault acknowledged that teacher training can play a role in poor classroom achievement she believes that instructors, especially those with advanced degrees, come equipped with an adequate level of professional learning to be effective.
“Theoretically, with some 50% of high school teachers with Masters’ Degrees, they should be fully trained in most requirements,” Bouffault said.
“I refuse to believe that it’s the students’ fault. Lately, there has been a higher teacher turn-over, from both resignations and retirements, and teacher training continues to be seriously inadequate. Ultimately, it is always the teachers in the classroom that make the difference. Both the School Board and the school administration need to do everything possible to ensure that our teachers are of the highest caliber, and are given the tools they need to succeed,” said Bouffault.
During Monday night’s meeting, which often became a question and answer period between School Board members, administrators and the division’s four principals, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Lisa Floyd said that the school division’s purchase of staff training software tools, including a video library training product, will make a significant difference in future teacher performance.
“In the past, the goal was to send teachers away to training courses and they were expected to come back and train others in what they learned,” Floyd said. “That expectation was hard to implement and hard to monitor.”
Floyd said that the new video library will provide an on-demand division-wide training platform that individual schools can tailor to their specific staff needs. The product will also provide school administrators with a method to monitor which staff members have taken which courses.
“We hope that it’s going to be very, very helpful,” Floyd said. “Targeted professional development is what we are looking for.”
Floyd also pointed to an interactive software program that the division is using to help improve writing skills.
Clarke County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy said that the teacher development training library was just one of the tools that his team is relying on to turn-around declining student performance.
“Ms. Welliver mentioned number crunching earlier,” Murphy said. “I think that it’s really important to recognize the fact that in the last fifteen months, but especially just in the last couple months, we now have the tools – thanks to the Board and the Board’s willingness to move us into Interactive Achievement – we have the tools and we have the personnel to begin finally to disaggregate data like we’ve never done before. We’re disaggregating data school-by-school and grade-by-grade. We’re using that information to inform teachers about what students are missing in the curriculum or perhaps what we’re missing division wide in the curriculum. So we’re actually beginning the process of taking apart lots and lots of data and using it for probably its best purpose and that’s to inform instruction.”
Murphy continued, “With the data we can identify what are we doing instructionally right, what are we doing instructionally not-so-good and we’re sharing that information with teachers on an individual basis – and sometimes even on an individual student basis – to try and inform the instructional process so kids not only meet the benchmarks, but so that they can learn and achieve those goals that the state of Virginia has set before us.”
Although Murphy and Floyd believe that increased data review will lead to better future student performance Bouffault wants to see more immediate performance improvements.
“If individual teachers have consistently shown poor results, at least lately, there have been â€˜plans of assistance’ or â€˜plans of improvement’ apparently put in place, however the School Board has not been made aware of the details of these plans,” Bouffault said in an email message. “No teachers have had their contracts un-renewed as a consequence of any such plan. The School Board retreat will hopefully address this matter, along with a number of others.”
School Board member Jennifer Welliver (Berryville) said that she believes that part of the problem, at least with low math scores, is due the former school administration’s policy decision to implement “accelerated” math classes beginning with fifth graders. Although the current School Board eliminated the math acceleration approach three years ago, Welliver pointed out that those same students who participated in the accelerated instruction are now entering eighth grade.
Welliver also pointed to budget cuts that have eliminated division support for SAT preparation courses that can be very beneficial in boosting test scores.
“SAT-prep classes are one of these things that have been cut from the budget that are very helpful,” Welliver said.
But despite the reasons for the low scores Bouffault came to last night’s meeting looking for answers to what she sees as unacceptable school division performance.
“As you can see, the math scores have plummeted, while happily, reading and writing remain above 90%,” Bouffault said of Johnson Williams Middle School test scores. “With 8th graders doing so poorly in math last year, this year’s high school freshman class will have some serious Math challenges to overcome.”
“As you can see, JWMS is the lowest performing of the comparison. Hopefully our staff can come up with some good solutions to reverse this course,” Bouffault said.
CDN Editor: An earlier version of this story failed to attribute the included graphs to School Board member Robina Bouffault.