There are underpinnings in every school that keep students afloat and move them along toward greater levels of achievement.
While experts agree the Future Ready Index is an improvement over prior methods of assessing school performance, there will always be information lacking to put each school into the proper context.
“Where it becomes misused is when you draw an apple-to-apple comparison between buildings,” said Michael Gogoj, director of curriculum and instruction for Carlisle Area School District.
“You can say here is the comparison, but what also needs to go with the story is how the buildings are different,” he said. “What are the unique needs within each building? Why is one building struggling at achieving a benchmark while another building is hitting that benchmark? It goes back to the idea of context.”
Every building within every school district draws its student enrollment from an attendance area, a designated geography with its own blend of demographics. While the geography can be constant for years, the demographics can shift from one academic period to the next depending on the circumstances in that attendance area.
“Students entering one building as a population may need more support than students entering a different building,” Gogoj said. What is similar is the foundation each student needs to succeed and how demographics play into that.
To heighten transparency around school and student performance, the index includes data on achievement and growth by student groups including English language learners, students receiving special education services and racial and ethnic groups, said Eric Levis, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Research has shown a correlation between student performance in school and whether they are identified as economically disadvantaged. For example, students can enter kindergarten with vastly different vocabularies depending on their experiences from birth to age 5, Gogoj said.
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The depth and scope of those experiences often depend upon family income and the availability of time. Parents working multiple jobs trying to make ends meet often have less time to help their children learn. Also, the family may not have enough money to invest in quality preschool programs that build fundamental skills. The needs of every child must be addressed on an individual basis for learning to begin.
Often, those needs are as basic as making sure they have something to eat for breakfast and lunch, Gogoj said. There are also the mental and emotional needs of students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds where family stability may be an issue, he said. For many, the key to success is to connect the student with a teacher or mentor who can help address those needs and engage the child in learning. This can be done through after-school clubs and activities.
Title I schools
Buildings with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students are often classified as Title I schools. That designation makes them eligible for federal grants the school district could use to provide additional support that levels the playing field and addresses recognized needs.
Title I buildings have some of the best teachers in the Carlisle school district because these staff members must use a broad range of skills and techniques to work closely with such a diverse group of students, Gogoj said. “There are a lot of things that we should be proud of in our school buildings. We just have to know that some things are not quantifiable but are more narrative or qualitative.
“What we can really draw from the index is information on patterns and trends over time, many of which we already know in terms of achievement and growth of students,” Gogoj said. “What we use it for is to inform our decisions on a large scale.”
Big Spring School District uses data in the Future Ready Index to pinpoint gaps in the scope and sequence of the different academic units that teach competencies, Superintendent Richard Fry said. “It helps drive our curriculum and vision process.”
There is a lot more to meeting the needs of students than focusing on how many questions they answer right or wrong on a standardized test, said Fred Withum III, superintendent of the Cumberland Valley School District. He said trends in education show districts that more emphasis and value needs to be placed on guiding students on a route that does not necessarily include four years of college.