School data requests spark ‘Passing’ report

From the Twin Falls Times-News

July 1,2007 – Joshua Palmer – TWIN FALLS TIMES-NEWS

TWIN FALLS – Projects like “Passing on Failure” don’t fall into a reporter’s lap.

The people, places, facts and figures take time to locate.

The Times-News initially requested copies of district policies regarding student retention and absences from 20 school districts in the Magic Valley. All complied.

The newspaper followed up by sending to six districts – chosen to represent size and demographic diversity – written requests for information such as class grades, Idaho Standards Achievement Test scores and gradepoint averages for individual students, without names or other identification.

That’s all public information. But only three of those six districts provided it: Jerome, Wendell and Twin Falls.

The superintendents of the Gooding and Cassia county school districts – who both retired weeks later – did not respond to our requests. In Cassia, follow-up calls to a clerk and the School Board chairwoman finally led to Associate Superintendent Gaylen Smyer, who will become superintendent this month.

“We have a lot of excuses, and none ofthem are good ones,” Smyer said. “We dropped the ball on this one.”

The Hagerman School District allowed the newspaper access to the requested information, but neither the school district nor the newspaper had the personnel available to assemble it.

All six school districts said their data were incomplete because they have changed the way they report student performance. Some school districts could not provide the newspaper with data for an entire academic year.

Gaining this public information was the most formidable challenge in understanding the issues facing middle schools in Idaho.

Education will utilize $1.37 billion of Idaho’s $2.8 billion annual budget during the state’s 2007 fiscal year, which makes it the largest state expenditure. It’s a big investment for a big public task: Preparing a future generation of competitive and productive citizens.

The Times-News’ pursuit for access to testing data is a vital task in reporting on the performance of public schools. Although incomplete, the data confirmed students’ statements about their middle-school struggles.

From the Twin Falls Times-News

Passing on Failure

From the Twin Falls Times-News

Ready or not, middle school students move to next grade

Jul 1,2007 – Joshua Palmer – TWIN FALLS TIMES-NEWS

JEROME – Nicole Brewton would pray from her desk in the back of the classroom that her seventh-grade reading teacher would call on another student.

Nicole dreaded questions about the reading assignments because she really didn’t know how to read. But it wasn’t only reading that plagued Nicole. She was failing the other core classes, too – math and language arts.

“It was really embarassing because the teachers would always call on me and I never knew the answers,” said Nicole, now 13. “That was the time when I just thought I was the only stupid kid in my classes because all the other kids seemed to know the answers.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Twenty-two other seventh-graders at Jerome Middle School were failing basic reading, according to a copy of student grades provided to the Times-News. Like Nicole, many of those students also failed math and language arts.

Each year hundreds of students in junior high or middle school throughout Magic Valley fail at least one of the three core subjects, yet the schools promote them to the next grade. In an education system that builds on the knowledge that students learn in previous grades, a growin number of students are passing on to higher grades without the basic understanding they need to succeed.

What set Nicole apart from other failing students? She was the only Jerome student in 2006-07 repeating seventh grade.

A rare decision

How many middle-school students are passing on failure? The statistics are startling.

In 2005-06, 105 seventh- and eighth-grade students at Jerome Middle School failed math. Sixteen failed reading. But Nicole was the only student retained to repeat a grade at Jerome Middle School.

That pattern is not isolated to Jerome.

In the Twin Falls School District, 176 seventh- and eighth-grade students from Robert Stuart Junior High and Vera C. O’Leary Junior High failed basic math in 2005-06. But the school district did not retain any students that year. Twin Falls has retained only three students in the seventh and eighth grades since 2001.

Both school districts say the decision to retain a student is left to the parent, and educators often try to persuade parents against it. Educators cite several studies – including one by the professional educators association Phi Delta Kappa, summarized online at Magicvalley.com – which suggest that forcing students to repeat a grade may actually be more harmful than moving on.

Eric Anderson, Jerome Middle School principal, attributes educators’ reluctance to retain students mostly to parents’ authority over schools.

“We do try to accommodate the parents because we want to work in cooperation with them,” Anderson said. “But there is also a big concern about lawsuits from parents who might think that their student was unjustly held back.”

Nicole’s parents – not the school – held her back

“We told her that if she didn’t bring her grades up and focus in class, that we would have her repeat the seventh grade,” said Cindy Mosley, Nicole’s mother. “So toward the end of the year when she didn’t bring those grades up, we went to the school and asked to have her repeat.”

The decision terrified Nicole, who knew she would watch her friends graduate to the eighth grade while she stayed behind.

The peer problem

Nicole felt the effects during the first week of the following school year. Jerome Middle School’s incoming seventh-graders, who initially thought she was a transfer student, learned the truth.

Then the teasing and name-calling started.

“Some of the kids would make fun of me and call me stupid because I was held back,” Nicole said. “I felt really alone because all my friends had moved on and most of them wouldn’t even talk to me anymore.”

Only one friend from the previous year would still speak to her – the others, she said, worried about being seen with a “lowerclassman.”

Once again, she tried to disappear in the back of the class. But this time she was hiding from classmates as well as the teacher. It’s a common behavior from students who are retained, and it’s another reason most educators are reluctant to hold students back.

“In many cases you see those students (who were retained) performing worse because they feel like they’re only going to fail again,.” said Jeni Taylor, a Title I instructor at Robert Stuart Junior High, who specializes in remediation. “They feel intimidated by repeating the grade level and by their peers who make it very uncomfortable.”

Although Nicole’s mother was concerned about the harassment, she insisted that education comes first.

“To me, repeating a grade so she can get an education is more important than social promotion,” Mosley said. “Besides, my biggest concern is what will happen when she gets into high school and those grades count.”

At that higher level, failing students have two options – catch up or drop out.

From the Twin Falls Times-News

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