PWCS Strategic Plan and State AMOs

Every organization, whether private or public, is evaluated on how well they do their jobs.  For private companies that evaluation comes from their customers, who will go someplace else if they’re dissatisfied.  Because government entities are monopolies and citizens, for the most part, don’t have alternatives to choose from, evaluating performance for them is a bit more complicated.  Police departments are evaluated based on crime rates, fire departments are rated on response times, and schools are rated on test scores.

At the January 16, 2013 School Board meeting, PWCS requested board approval of a few changes to the Strategic Plan.  These changes were characterized by Chairman Johns and Dr Walts as “semantic” in nature and were necessary because the state had received a waiver from NCLB and reset the Annual Measurable Objectives (AMO’s) for school divisions.  AMOs list, among many other things, the targeted percentage of students expected to pass the SOL exams each year.   The school division requested that the proposed changes be presented and  voted on the same night.

At the time I’d requested that the school board delay voting on the proposed changes to give citizens time to understand and examine them and provide feedback to their elected officials before the vote was taken.  Citing the “semantic” nature of the changes, the school board voted on the changes on the 16th and approved them.

I think this was a poor decision.

Under NCLB, in the Spring of 2014, schools across the nation would have been required to pass 100% of their students on their state exams.  As such, the state pass rate targets and the PWCS Strategic Plan set 100% passing as our goal.  With the waiver from NCLB, the state set new pass rate targets for Math that are below current pass rates statewide, but increase each year.  Updated Reading pass rate targets will be released in the summer of 2014.  Since the goals in PWCS’s strategic plan were based on the 100% pass rate, when the state changed it’s rates, our rates needed to change as well.

A first glance the changes seem simple.  If the school division’s goal is to exceed state pass rate targets, then we just insert the new targets into the plan.  But the state didn’t just reset the pass rate targets overall, they defined different groups of students and set different pass rate targets for each “group” of students.  Instead of one overall target, 94% passing, there are now different pass rate targets for each “group” of students.  These groups fall into three broad categories, with different pass rate targets are set for each group in those categories: (1) overall, which is all students, (2) ethnic groups which are Asian, Black, Hispanic, and White, and (3) select groups, which include Economically Disadvantaged, Special Education, and Limited English Proficiency students.   So far those targets, which were updated in January, have only been released for Math (see VA Pass Rate Targets for Math – Jan 2013).

To be in compliance with state expectations all PWCS had to do was add the new state groups and pass rate targets for each group, which is what the division proposed doing.  While we can debate that such a change is more than “semantic”, it’s not that big of a deal and continues PWCS’s policy of meeting state pass rate targets.

How did PWCS perform when compared with the new pass rate targets in each group in 2012 and how does our 2012 performance compare with pass rates targets for 2013 – 2017?  In 2012 PWCS students in every group exceeded state pass rate targets for 2012 & 2013, and for 2014 for every group except special ed in every grade level /subject except third grade.  White and Asian students exceed state pass rate targets for every grade level / subject through 2017.  See PWCS 2012 to State Pass Rate Targets for the numbers.

Because PWCS students did so well on the state exams when compared with state pass rate targets, the school division added an additional goal to the PWCS Strategic Plan.  In addition to meeting state pass rate targets, the percentage of students passing the exams each year must increase. That’s a laudable goal, and means we can’t just sit back and do nothing for students in groups that already exceed 2017 pass rate targets. But while laudable, the goal lacks specificity, and that lack of specificity might prove to be problematic.

What does increase mean?  Is it from year to year within a given grade level and subject, from grade to grade as students move up in school, or both?  Is it on a school by school basis, overall for PWCS, or both?  Is it the percentage passing the exam, the raw scores achieved, or both? Are individual teachers supposed to increase their pass percentages each year, without regard for the makeup of the students in their classrooms?  What impact will that have on teacher performance evaluations?

This change isn’t a minor one, and certainly is more than “semantic”.  Several school board members asked some of these questions on the 16th, but their questions weren’t answered.  The reason changes like this are given time before they’re voted on is so that staff has the time to answer these questions and any wording changes or clarifications that result from that research can be incorporated.

The deal is done, so PWCS won’t be going back and adjusting things.  I think that’s unfortunate.  Delaying the vote two weeks wouldn’t have undermined anything as the revised state pass rate targets weren’t issued until early January, so PWCS has been operating this year without those pass rate targets included in the Strategic Plan.

There is one more point I felt deserved clarifying.  It was implied during the meeting on the 16tgh that the changes to the current Strategic Plan were no big deal because committees would begin meeting this summer to update it. The current Strategic Plan, the one that was just revised, will be in effect until the Spring of 2015.  The new Strategic Plan, for which committees will begin meeting this summer, will not be effective until the Fall of 2015.  This plan will be effective for 2 1/2 more years.

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