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Effects of poverty show up in Georgia’s school report card

Georgia’s new system for grading schools is far more complex than the one it replaces. Educators see it as an improvement in gauging performance at schools with high poverty rates.

But an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that the new system says as much about poverty as it does about academic performance. Poor schools got significantly lower grades than their more affluent counterparts, the newspaper found. The median grade of poor elementary schools was 15 points lower than the median grade of more affluent elementary schools. The median grade of poor middle and high schools was 14 points lower than the median grade of more affluent middle and high schools.

The link between poverty and poor performance in school has long been noted in criticism of academic indicators like graduation rates and the SAT exam. And some doubt whether any system can fairly measure the performance of schools with vastly different student profiles.

Many educators believe such systems can’t be more than mere mirrors of poverty. Show me a school with high concentrations of poverty, they say, and I’ll show you one that’s likely to be deemed a low-performing school.

“I am not convinced that it is possible to use a singular metric to compare schools that have enormously different student populations,” said Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield, who has pushed for big changes in Georgia’s grading system to give more weight to academic growth. “We are well into our second decade of believing we can rank, compare, punish and reward schools into improvement. While the jury is still out on our latest efforts, I see no evidence that any nation on the planet has taken this approach and succeeded.”

In announcing the 2012-2013 grades last month, Georgia Superintendent John Barge acknowledged that “poverty has an impact on student achievement.”

Barge, however, has lauded the new system’s design, which gives schools with a high percentage of poor students opportunities to earn extra points. After grades for the 2011-2012 school year were released last year, the state tweaked the system to give schools more credit for spurring academic growth and to reduce the impact of standardized tests on a school’s grade. Low-income students tend to score lower on those tests.

In its analysis, The AJC defined a poor school as one where at least 40 percent of students qualify for federal assistance in paying for breakfast or lunch at school. That’s the threshold the U.S. Department of Education uses to give schools additional resources through its Title I program, named after the first section of a 1965 law designed to mitigate the impacts of poverty.

Even after Georgia’s grading system was changed, some high-poverty schools improved student performance but ended up with a low overall grade. That was the case at Gracewood Elementary in Richmond County, which got 17.7 of the 25 points available for improving student performance. Gracewood was in the top quarter of schools in Georgia in terms of academic growth.

Still, the school, where 86 percent of students qualified for federal meal assistance, got an overall grade of 58.2.

The school’s principal, Chris L. Neal, said he doesn’t believe its low grade means the school is doing a poor job. He said the new grading system is an improvement over the No Child Left Behind system but that it will still be harder for poor schools to score as well as more affluent schools.

“We know we’re a good school,” Neal said. “When kids come here, they know they’re loved. They’re learning.”

In defending the system, Barge said he doesn’t anticipate big changes to how grades are compiled, noting that the federal government requires states to have systems that rely heavily on student achievement, measured mostly on standardized tests.

Georgia’s Department of Education came up with the index to give parents an easy-to-understand “grade” on a zero to 110-point scale. Schools and districts get points in several areas, including academic achievement, academic progress and closing the gap in performance among different groups of students. An additional 10 points can be earned by enrolling students in high-level coursework or through the success of poor students, special education students and those still learning English.

Some schools have used the grade, as state officials hoped they would, to focus on providing additional assistance to students in particular grade levels. Others have focused more on special education students.

Unlike the new grading system, the rules of the No Child Left Behind law largely relied on standardized test scores to determine if a school made “adequate yearly progress.” Teachers and principals could be reassigned if a school repeatedly failed to make “AYP” as it was called in education jargon. Not making AYP was seen as a mark of failure.

Barge said the new system is a major improvement over the old one.

“With CCRPI, there is no ‘making it,’ or ‘not making it,’ ” he said. “Schools now get a numerical grade, which paints a much clearer picture than the previous AYP determinations. Also, it is much more comprehensive than AYP and provides schools with a much broader view of how they are doing overall.”

Because non-school factors such as nutrition, family stability and parental involvement can play major roles in how a student performs, many educators say academic growth — not just achievement based on test scores — is the best measure of whether a teacher, school or district is doing a good job.

Kris Koellner, a 5th-grade math teacher at Gracewood, said he and his colleagues look to growth to determine if they are doing a good job.

“If I focus on 58.2, I’d lose my energy, my focus,” he said. “It could be depressing.”

He said he has personally seen how poverty affects a student’s readiness to learn and, ultimately, how that student performs.

“One of the biggest things is parental involvement,” Koellner said. “There’s a large lack of it in a poverty school. It could be that mom is working two or three jobs. It could be that Dad is not around. It could be that child is being raised by an aunt or a grandmother.”

Poor students sometimes come to school hungry. He said he can often tell if a student is hungry. The child will be overly talkative or unfocused. In those instances, he said he pulls the student aside.

“I’ll ask, ‘Have you eaten?’” Koellner said.

Monday meals are particularly busy at Gracewood, Koellner said, like they are at many schools that get Title I assistance. That’s because some students don’t eat regularly over the weekend.

“I don’t know all of the challenges of my students, but I know they have challenges,” he said. “I know they go home to empty refrigerators. I know there might not be anyone at home when they get there. I know they come back to school the next day wearing the same clothes they wore the day before.”

Lisa Tripp, a teacher’s assistant at Gracewood, had three children attend the school and currently has two grandchildren there. Gracewood’s poor grade is not an accurate reflection of the school, she said.

Tripp said she knows of teachers who have used their personal resources to make sure students are fed and have clean clothes.

“They treat them like they’re their own children,” she said. “I believe the school is doing wonderfully.”

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