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REAL PoV: PHM Portrays an Incomplete Picture of Academic Performance

Bryan Jones, Candidate for the Harris Township seat on the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation Board of Trustees

WRITTEN BY: Bryan Jones, Candidate for the Harris Township seat on the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation Board of Trustees

Over the last couple of months, concern has been growing over the declining academic performance on state level proficiency tests.  Many articles have been written that are quick to point out that challenges faced during the Pandemic are the main reason for the decline.  While the restrictive and isolating learning environments that most school boards opted for certainly didn’t help, locally, and of more concern to our community, and specifically within the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation (PHM) the decline has been happening for almost a decade.  This decline in academic proficiency is not something a lot of people seem to want to talk about.  It is becoming clearer that administrators would rather highlight only the data points that are attractive in an effort to explain the declines away rather than to take accountability.

The PHM administration sent out a letter to all of its enrolled families that details results of the latest rounds of state level testing.  The letter was complete with data to support claims of state rankings, performance against similar sized and socioeconomically similar school corporations, explanations that new testing is different from old testing and what PHM has done to begin to improve their performance. 

The thing about data is, facts can be used to skew reality and present a case that is technically factual with the data presented and at the same time be used to draw a conclusion that doesn’t tell the full story…or worse make disingenuous claims.  This, in my opinion, is what PHM did last week when the administration sent an email to defend a decline in academic performance and highlight, what they call the “great news”.  In the paragraphs that follow, I will give you additional insight on the entre picture of results from state testing and discuss each one of the recent claims made by the PHM administration.

Before I jump into this, I want to be clear that I think there are some programs that have proven to be very effective.  PHM, in the last year, has hired additional resources and now has interventionalists at each of our schools.  These programs have shown we can raise up those that have fallen behind.  We need way more of that.  We need to emulate what is happening at our highest performing schools and replicate that through the entire PHM system.  We need more resources and focus on remediation efforts instead of debate on policy items that do not support the state mission of high academic achievement.  There are still far too few resources being made available to our teachers and what they are getting has come many years too late.  Our teachers are deeply passionate who care greatly about educating our children.  I also believe there are many who do not feel they have the resources and support to lift every child up that has fallen behind in the last decade.  Our teachers are in a really tough position and need more support and resources. 

I have written several social media posts over the last week highlighting the trend of decline for the last decade versus the consistent high graduation rates.  I have followed by asking the community to consider if this is level of achievement is acceptable and if the students are prepared to take the next step in their life after high school.  It’s a tough question to ask, the answers aren’t that pretty, and you need to know the whole story.  The PHM administration is not giving you, the people who elected them, the whole story.  There are areas of praise and there are challenges to embrace. 

This is the way I see it. 

As a whole, PHM performance is declining and some individual schools within PHM are at or below 30% proficiency.  There are a few schools that are at levels of proficiency that would be considered academically excellent.  We need more of that. 

Academically PHM is at its lowest grade level proficiency in the last 14 years.  The height of academic achievement came in 2013 and 2014 with 88% of all students, corporation wide, being proficient at their grade level.  At the same time, every school, except for one, was over 80% proficient.  (the outlier was at 76%).  Today, in 2022, the entire PHM corporation sits at a grade level proficiency of 51%.  One school is at 23%, that’s almost 8 out of 10 students that didn’t achieve grade level proficiency in 2022.  The current administration and several of the current board members have presided over this entire period of decline from 2013.  If you’ve attended many board meetings you won’t hear much about the academic decline.  Instead, at the July 25th, 2022, regularly scheduled board meeting what you would have heard is that “We have great news to share!  PHM is in the top 3.67% and the 11th ranked public school system in the state academically.”  All of 1 minute and 44 seonds were dedicated to this topic and none of the board members in attendance had any questions, concerns, or additional information to share.  Here is the link to that meeting.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWSszBQS6h8  This discussion starts at 14:55 and ends at 16:33 in the video.  Judge for yourself. 

I want to be clear; this is not a condemnation of our passionate educators and there is good news worth celebrating.  Where we sit academically, unfortunately, is not good news.  The board sets the policy, approves the curriculum and the methods of instruction.  So, while the administration and board tout our 11th place among the state school systems, it is more than disingenuous to portray these outcomes as a success story.  Behind the scenes, 5 of every 10, and in some cases, 2 of every 10 students are not achieving academically as measured by state standards.  Furthermore, administrators often use the challenges of education during COVID to justify the academic decline.  They point to school shutdowns and virtual learning in isolation as a reason for the decline.  Unfortunately, it was the present board that continued to enforce COVID school restrictions when parents were raising well known concerns that these restrictions were interfering with their children’s ability to learn. Administrators and “experts” often point to the slight increase seen in 2022, as a sign of success.  The issue with this is twofold; the decline has been happening for almost a decade and we have proven we can be as great as almost 90% proficient corporation wide.  5 out of 10 students succeeding is not winning.  With a child in the PHM school system, I have a personal stake in seeing that the focus returns to academic education…not only for my child but for every child currently in PHM and every child coming after.  Every parent or family with a student in PHM has a stake in seeing that we do better, and these families deserve better.  All PHM school data from 2013 – 2022 is shown in Table 1 below.

This is the PHM message (link here https://www.phmschools.org/news/sep-2022/p-h-m-test-score-information)

The high level summary of this letter from the Superintendent is that since PHM is in the top 3.67% and 11th in the state, combined with the fact that the PHM decline is less severe than the state average as well as many other comparable school districts, layered on top of the idea that the test changing from ISTEP to ILEARN in 2019 made it more difficult, the decline in test scores was predicted and acceptable.  Let’s take this one point at a time. 

#1  The former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dr. Jennifer McCormick, made a statement in 2019 in order to clarify the drastic differences between ISTEP+…and ILEARN.  “The two exams aren’t comparable, (ILEARN) covers some different material and uses tougher standards. ILEARN is computer adaptive, meaning questions change depending on whether a student answers a previous question correctly.”  – AP NEWS 9-14-19

Part of this is accurate, part is debatable and part of it has a counter point.  Here’s what you should know about the two exams.  An article from the Courier and Press on 4-22-2019 explains this well.  (Link https://www.courierpress.com/story/news/2019/04/22/ilearn-testing-starts-monday-evsc-here-5-things-know/3519313002/)  The content is still the same.  Both tests are assessing a student on the Indiana Academic standards.  After all, math is math and language arts are still language arts.  The main difference in the tests is ILEARN is adaptive.  It does get increasingly more difficult when a student answers correctly, and by the same logic, the test also gets easier when a student answers incorrectly.  Two things flow from this.  A student that gets increasingly harder questions, would certainly meet the standard of “proficient” and a student that gets increasingly easier questions would likely get more correct answers.  Because of this I am not concluding that the change in testing would cause a decline in performance.  As shown in the chart above, some of our schools have maintained very high levels of proficiency over the past decade and even through the test changes.  Northpoint and Prairie Vista have remained above 80% with the exception of 2021.  

#2  Penn-Harris-Madison’s students scored in the top 3.67% of all public school corporations ranking 11th out of 299 districts. 

These numbers really sound good as stand-alone figures.  When you look at the actual proficiency levels of the corporation and individual schools, it loses some of its luster.  Again, in referencing the table above, you can see that the PHM corporation proficiency level is 51% and has declined by 37% since 2013.  Half of the students aren’t passing.  There is some good news that deserves repeating.  Northpoint and Prairie Vista have achieved over 80% proficiency except for 2021.  There is another side of this coin that’s not so shiny.  8 out of 15 schools are at or below 50%.  Two schools at 23% and 32% proficiency.  That means that almost 8 out of 10 students in some of our own schools are not achieving academic readiness within PHM.  These are the statistics that is not being shared.  These schools and these students deserve better.  They also deserve the acknowledgment from their leaders that they need the resources and attention to lift these students up. 

#3  As we noted above, the statewide assessment changed in 2019. But even with that change, one way we benchmark our performance is by comparing it to statewide proficiency scores. Since 2013, we have increased our variance from state averages considerably.

Once again, a disclaimer to set expectations that decline is acceptable and that our results are better than state averages.  Simply put here, it doesn’t matter what other school systems performance is, we care about OUR PHM School Corporation and EVERY student is not achieving.  The same goes for the comparisons to other similar school districts that follow.

#4  Recently our spring 2022 SAT results were released showing that P-H-M students (juniors from last spring) rank in Indiana’s Top 5% in Mathematics, and the Top 7% in English/Language Arts in the state!

As far as SAT scores go the information that is available from the IDOE shows that 67.6% of PHM 11th graders met benchmark levels of achievement.  This is a good result.  Good News, not Great News. compared to 86.3% for Zionsville.  I know I stated that we should be solely concerned with results in PHM rather than in other schools and I still maintain that.  The point is, being ranked in the top 5% sounds way better than 20% below number 1.  The SAT results can be found here.  https://www.in.gov/doe/files/2022-sat-grade11-final-corporation.xlsx

That’s it.  That’s the whole story.  I will finish by saying that there are some really great things going on at PHM.  I acknowledge that this, almost decade long, trend of declining proficiency has many complex layers to it.  I know the solution won’t be quick and won’t be easy.  The first step is being realistic about it and acknowledging the realities, embracing the red.  There are three things I believe about success.  First, it should be celebrated.  Secondly, success breeds confidence and raises self-esteem.  Show me a student who was prepared and succeeded in achieving a great result on a tough academic test and I’ll show you a more confident student behind a smile that will achieve greater things.  Finally, greater success always comes from adversity.  If we don’t acknowledge our challenges, we cannot achieve to a higher level. 

My name is Bryan Jones and I am running for the Harris Township seat on the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation Board of Trustees.  When I am elected, I will work with every member of the board and administration and begin to set a path for a PHM to Return to Excellence.  I will be clear in my communication, with every member of the PHM community with both stories of excellence that deserve to be celebrated and also with the issues that need to be brought to light in order to fulfill the mission of PHM; Academic Excellence and Student Preparedness.  I will seek to understand the concerns and needs of our passionate educators and focus resources on driving academic improvement.  I will put education first, work towards putting an actual plan in place, communicate the plan with clarity to the public and be accountable to the outcomes.

If you want a better tomorrow, if you want leaders on the board focused on improving the academic performance of everyone in our school corporation, which its sole purpose, then you must make it known at the ballot box.  Cast your vote for me, Bryan Jones, and let’s turn things around, lets Return to Excellence.  You deserve that.

Election day is November, 8th, 2022.  For more information visit www.jonesforphm.com.

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