East Idaho administrators react differently to low-performing status

When the state named its 29 lowest performing schools in August, administrators in two East Idaho districts offered contrasting responses.

One accepted the reality. The other asked for an apology.

Teton Middle School and Madison Junior High School are two of the 29 schools labeled “needing improvement” — a designation divvied out under the State Department of Education’s new performance-accountability system, which uses multiple performance measures based on public feedback.

“No one is more motivated to look at the current realities of our organization and make purpose-driven changes than we are,” Teton Middle School principal Brian Ashton wrote in an article published in the Teton Valley News. “Bring it on.”

Madison superintendent Geoff Thomas called the “public shaming” method a terrible idea.

“I think we are all owed an apology from the SDE,” said Thomas, who lambasted the state’s criteria for placing Madison Junior High on the list.

Eight East Idaho schools are on the list

State leaders identified Idaho’s low-performing schools by using a range of measures, from standardized test scores and participation rates to high school graduation rates.

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Schools singled out fell within the bottom 5 percent for performance, once all factors were calculated and weighted.

Eight of the 29 schools are in East Idaho:

  • Howe Elementary School, Butte County School District, Arco.
  • West Jefferson Junior High School, West Jefferson School District, Terreton.
  • Madison Junior High School, Madison School District, Rexburg.
  • Firth Middle School, Firth School District, Firth.
  • Fort Hall Elementary School, Blackfoot School District, Blackfoot.
  • Kinport Academy, Pocatello-Chubbuck School District, Pocatello.
  • Stone Elementary School, Oneida School District, Malad.
  • Teton Middle School, Teton County School District, Driggs.

These schools will remain on the list for three years and are eligible for extra state support designed to combat low performance.

‘Bring it on’

Ashton highlighted three areas targeted by the state where his school can improve:

  • ISAT math scores. Twenty-one percent of the school’s students achieved proficient scores on the state’s 2017 standardized test of choice. Statewide, 40 percent of students in the same grades reached proficiency this same year.
  • ISAT participation. Idaho requires a 95 percent participation rate on the ISAT. Teton Middle School didn’t meet the threshold last year.
  • Student-engagement surveys. Idaho’s new accountability system includes student surveys aimed at measuring school quality and learning climate. Some classes at Teton Middle School failed to administer the surveys this year.

Ashton pledged to have every class complete student surveys next year. But he focused most of his plans on the school’s lagging math scores.

To improve performance in math, Ashton said the school will now offer “split courses” for both seventh and eighth graders — depending on individual needs. This includes grade-level and pre-algebra course offerings for seventh graders and pre-algebra and algebra I course offerings for eighth graders.

Ashton believes the new approach will allow teachers to target students on an individual basis and place them where they will be “most challenged.”

“Whether a student can’t multiply or is stuck on decimals, that is where we will begin,” he added.

Previously, Teton Middle School offered one math program per grade level. Ashton said this approach carried two negative consequences:

  1. Advanced student scores were “capped” because they weren’t able to progress.
  2. Struggling students were getting left behind because the course had to keep moving forward.

Teton superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme said a district leadership team will attend training in Boise later this month.

‘I think we are all owed an apology’

Madison Junior High dropped in the state rankings largely because a high number of students didn’t take the state’s required standardized test.

A State Department of Education fact sheet devoted to academic achievement states “federal law requires that Idaho use the number of students that would represent 95 percent as the denominator in the proficiency rate calculation.”

Thomas has joined some Madison parents and school board members in resisting the Common Core-aligned standardized test before reluctantly administering it. State records show that fewer than 86 percent of Madison Junior High students took the ELA or math tests in both 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Thomas said Madison “honors parental opt outs” and again questioned the test’s viability.

“It does not inform instruction, is expensive, takes six weeks to complete, disrupts valuable instructional time … and the test is not required for graduation,” he said. “So, a very logical question is, Why are we mandating that 95 percent of students take (it)?”

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