Schools in the Schenectady, Amsterdam, Gloversville and Mohonasen school districts were included in a new state list of struggling schools released on Thursday.
The list, the first developed under the state’s new school accountability system, identified schools in the bottom 5 percent of the state based on the performance of all students – called comprehensive support and improvement schools – and schools that ranked as struggling with a particular group of students – called targeted support and improvement schools.
Schools listed under the new state accountability plan will be required to conduct a schoolwide needs analysis and to develop an action plan targeting performance areas the school is struggling with. The state Education Department will send out teams to visit comprehensive support schools as part of the needs analysis.
The underlying formula used to determine which schools should be on the list included measures of how students performed on state tests, how much students improved on those tests, levels of student absenteeism, graduation rates and the progress of English language learners.
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, in a conference call with reporters on Thursday, said the new accountability plan aimed to identify schools in need of support from state officials and extra attention within a district – not to rank the state’s worst-performing schools.
“The accountability system is not intended to name and shame; rather, it’s intending to help schools improve teaching and learning,” Elia said.
In Schenectady, six elementary schools – Keane, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lincoln, Paige, Pleasant Valley and Yates – were listed as being in need of comprehensive support and improvement, an indication the schools were among the lowest-performing in the state. Mont Pleasant Middle School, Schenectady High School and Van Corlaer Elementary School were listed as being in need of targeted support and improvement because of the low performance of minority students and students with disabilities in those schools.
“We know that we have populations of kids that are under-served, are particularly vulnerable, and we have to work really hard to make sure those kids are getting what they need to get in order to meet those (academic) standards,” Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring said on Thursday.
Spring said the district has established six school intervention teams — one for each of the comprehensive support schools — made up of district officials who will work closely with the principals and staff of each school to conduct the needs analysis and update school improvement plans.
Spring also highlighted some of the district schools that registered in “good standing” Thursday, including Hamilton Elementary, which, a couple of years ago, was ranked as one of the lowest-performing schools in the state, a sign of gradual improvement in those schools.
He said parents and students in the district’s newly-identified schools should expect to see new people in the school and classrooms, as administrators and state officials review the school’s challenges. Parents and students may also be asked to participate in surveys and focus groups, as the schools plot next steps.
Spring also argued the state’s underlying accountability plan was “problematic,” because it does not account for how school districts are funded. Each year, state education officials use the state’s foundation aid formula to calculate how much money school districts should be given in order to address their students’ needs, but state lawmakers are still more than $4 billion short of fully funding the formula. Schenectady this year received about 68 percent of what the formula calculated as the district’s funding needs. Spring said the funding gap represents the district’s biggest hurdle in overcoming the strains of poverty and other challenges that hold back many Schenectady students.
“I hope that (funding gap) distance shrinks, and in addition to changing practices, we can bring significant additional resources to all of those schools,” Spring said. “Even in schools that are in good standing, there’s not enough money in those schools to be doing what we should be doing in those schools.”
In the Greater Amsterdam School District, McNulty and Lynch Literacy academies were identified as being in need of comprehensive support, while Barkley elementary and Amsterdam High School were identified for targeted support.
Gloversville Middle School ranked as a comprehensive support and improvement school, while Gloversville High School was listed as a targeted support and improvement school.
The superintendents in Amsterdam and Gloversville did not respond to requests for comment Thursday afternoon. Schools in the Mayfield, Albany and Troy school districts were also classified as being in need of comprehensive or targeted support.
Draper Middle School, in the Mohonasen Central School District was identified as a comprehensive support school – ranking in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, under the accountability plan. But Mohonasen Superintendent Shannon Shine said district officials were still working to better understand how the school made the list. Shine cited the district’s graduation rate — nearly 90 percent — and said it seemed unlikely a district with graduation rates that high would have a middle school performing in the bottom 5 percent of the state.
“I was fairly shocked at the designation because it doesn’t square with some our student outcomes,” Shine said on Thursday.
He said he suspects the school’s high opt-out rates on tests – fewer than half of Draper students took annual math and English Language Arts exams last year – may have contributed to the school’s designation. As part of the complex formula state officials used to determine the school classifications, it is possible schools with high opt-out rates could see part of their scores slide. But state officials have pushed back on those concerns, noting that that no school whose test-taking students scored above average were classified on the state listing.
“No school is identified solely because of high rates of test refusals,” Elia said on the conference call.
Shine said he expects to gain a better understanding of how Draper ended up on the list in the coming days and weeks, adding that district officials would begin the work of assessing the school’s needs and begin to develop a school improvement plan.
“If the worst thing that happens here is the state has us dig deeper into the data and programs and supports (at Draper), great,” Shine said. “I think it will validate what we are doing, and I suspect we will be able to work toward getting ourselves toward good standing by any measure.”