Phipps talks test scores

Published 1:10 am Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Staff Writer

The key to improving test scores in Beaufort County is improving reading and comprehension skills of the public school system’s youngest students, according to the county’s top school official.
In recent weeks, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction has released results from standardized tests, graduation rates and SAT scores for the 2009-2010 school year for school systems statewide.
Beaufort County Schools Superintendent Don Phipps recently discussed those results with the Beaufort County Board of Education and the Washington Daily News.
“What I want us to have is a sense of urgency that we make a positive impact on students,” Phipps said in a recent interview. “It’s a question of the wise allocation of people resources and the wise allocation of resources of time.”
The results for Beaufort County Schools for the 2009-2010 school year have been mixed.
Graduation rates are up, and average SAT scores for some schools have begun to approach or pass the state average, but other indicators, such as the number of schools in the district achieving federal benchmarks, have dropped.
“None of our schools has arrived,” he said. “Every school we have has room for improvement, and some schools have more room for improvement.”
The best way to improve those test scores and reach federally-impose goals is for educators to focus on early literacy to ensure students are reading well by the time they reach third grade, when students begin taking the standardized tests used by state and federal education agencies to gauge performance, Phipps said.
To do this will require at least quarterly assessments of each of the school system’s youngest students, he said.
That way, teachers can identify those students who are having trouble with their school work and intervene while there’s still time to make a difference, he said.
Phipps also said that instead of focusing the school system’s efforts on one or two low-performing groups, local educators should instead focus their efforts on improving instruction across the board.
“If we have good fundamental instructional strategies, we’re going to catch everybody,” he said.
Among the recent test results for Beaufort County Schools:
• The four-year graduation rate for students in Beaufort County’s public schools rose significantly for the 2009-2010 school year, approaching the state’s graduation rate for the first time in four years.
• Twelve of Beaufort County’s 14 public schools met or exceeded “growth” for the 2009-2010 school year as defined under the ABCs of Public Education and seven out of those 12 met “high-growth” goals.
• As a district, Beaufort County Schools did not make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, goals for 2009-2010 as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind, and four of 14 schools met 100 percent of federal markers.
• More Beaufort County high school students took the SAT in 2010, but their performances on the exam dropped slightly when compared to the previous year, in contrast to students across the state and nationwide.
Educators like Phipps generally agree that those reports are tools they use to get a quick snapshot of how a school district and individual schools within that district are performing.
The test results can do more than provide that quick snapshot, he said.
By focusing on growth trends over time, among groups of students as they move through the school system, those reports also may give educators a valuable tool to track those students and identify strong points and weak points along the way.
Phipps said he can look beyond the overall data for the school district and break it down by school, grade and subject to identify trends and spot specific areas that need work.
“We can take all that data and determine what’s going on at the individual schools and try to fix it,” he said. “We can see what’s going on in term of patterns.”
For example, based on the 2009-2010 test results, another area of focus for Beaufort County Schools will be math at the elementary and middle grades in pockets throughout the county, Phipps said. 
Beaufort County Schools will seek to improve the number of students who participate in end-of-grade testing because when schools do not test 95 percent or more of its students, this failure may keep a school from meeting AYP.
The county’s three high schools — Northside, Southside and Washington — that failed to meet AYP for the 2009-2010 school year did meet proficiency standards but did not make AYP because the requisite percent of students did not take the tests.
It’s possible to improve student end-of-grade and end-of-course scores, graduation rates and SAT scores even in times of tight budgets, Phipps said.
“We’ve got to figure out where we are and what we have and maximize our resources,” he said. “This involves making better choices about how we allocate our money.”