Is Octorara Falling Further Behind in Education Achievement and Growth?


Is Octorara Falling Further Behind in Education Achievement and Growth?

We have been waiting for the Pennsylvania Department of Education to release their School Performance Profile Scores. At the end of September, PDE did release PSSA and Keystone scores. However, they were still working on the SPP scores which take into account more data points, including academic growth, graduation rates, SAT/ACT college readiness, and more. Those of us who are concerned about Octorara;s academic achievement and growth, and follow these numbers, are going to be disappointed but not surprised.

Today’s post shows the building level scores, makes some comparisons with other districts, and gives those data points that I feel are the most disturbing. However, I encourage every parent and taxpayer to review each report on the state website. This article only touches on a few of Octotara’s shortcomings and it is not a complete picture. It is best that you personally evaluate these reports unfiltered, without the political spin and Clintonesque language used by some Administrators and some other members of the Octorara Area School Board.

Octorara’s Building Level Academic Scores

Key takeaways from the Octorara’s Academic Performance reports:

  • Each school FAILED to meet the state minimum score of 70 – Currently, the PLC’s number is not being reported.
  • District-wide, Octorara is FAILING at Math and Reading – The average combined building score for both PSSA and Keystone tests is 45.68 for Math/Algebra and 59.78 for ELA/Literature. Regardless, none of the buildings reached the minimum standard of 70.
  • Octorara starts out well with Science but quickly drops like a rock. – The Elementary School (3rd and 4th Grades) received a score of 80 for Science, but the score drops to 51.16 for Science/Biology at the JSHS.
  • Octorara 3rd Grade Reading is not improving – The 3rd Grade Reading Benchmark is critical for student success, and the District falls short of minimum standards.

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The Annual Report, Budget Discussions, and Student Drug Policy

The Octorara Area School District Board of Directors held its monthly Regular Meeting on November 17, 2014, as well as the Finance Committee and Policy Committee Meetings. All Board members were in attendance.

During the Regular Meeting, the Board approved all listed recommended action items.

The Annual Report

Elena Wilson, Director of Curriculum, with the help of School Principals, did a review of the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile scores. It was essentially the same presentation given to the Education Committee of October 28th.

Brian Norris focused in on the Primary Learning Center scores for Math and Reading, and asked why Math saw an improvement and Reading did not?

Ms Wilson’s response was that the school was applying Learning Focused School methods to Math, and was waiting for implementation with Reading as the curriculum aligns with PA Core Standards.

Mr Norris questioned the reasoning behind starting LFS with Math, and not Reading.

Ms Wilson stated that the Math curriculum had already been aligned with PA Core, and starting with Math made sense. Starting with Reading would have created double work because the curriculum was not ready. Moreover, the District is still in the startup stages of LFS, and doing both at the same time would have been too much at one time.

Mr Norris then asked if is it logical or is it wrong thinking to assume improvements in 3rd Grade Reading will on its own create improvement in other Achievement scores, as students continue through school?

Ms Wilson assured Mr Norris that the District does have a focus on Reading, and that it is not being ignored.

I pointed out that there are many articles referencing research that asserts 3rd Grade Reading is a make it or break it benchmark that impacts all other learning. I asked if Ms Wilson agreed with this research. I also asked if literacy issues are impacting the ability for students of comprend learning material, and is it impacting Achievement throughout a student’s entire education.

Ms Wilson stated the research is sound, and 3rd Grade Reading is a benchmark in literacy affecting all future learning.

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Education Committee Meeting – October 28, 2013

At the last Regular Board Meeting, Dr Newcome (and others) made a big deal of inviting all stakeholders to attend this Education Committee Meeting. The intent was to go deeper into Pennsylvania School Performance Profile scores, what they think the scores mean, and what others think the scores mean.

With as big a deal as this particular Education Committee Meeting was, it is extremely interesting that no other candidates for Octorara Area School Director were in attendance. Octorara is switching gears, becoming a Learning Focus School. It is a major change to the School District, but not one candidate (other than myself) could make time for this meeting. Does that make any sense?

Achievement vs Growth 

The big discussion this evening was explaining the new performance indicator… Growth. Under Adequate Yearly Progress, the state measured ability (maybe not the best word). Students where then listed as performing at Advanced, Proficient, Basic, and Below Basic levels. The goal was to get students testing at Proficient or above.

Now, with School Performance Profile, schools will also be scored on Growth. One thing to note is Growth does not necessarily mean a Basic student has moved to Proficient. The student could, but not necessarily.

The best way to explain this is take two 5th Grade students who start the year reading at a 3rd Grade level. If one student moves from a 3rd Grade level to a 5th Grade level, and the other student moves from a 3rd Grade level to a 4th Grade level, both have shown Growth. However, while one is now at Grade-level, the other is still behind. Does that make sense?

Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System

The Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System (PVAA) is a way for school districts to drill down into performance data. Elena Wilson, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, provided examples of how this system works, using charts created from data of Economically Disadvantaged Students.

The specific examples Wilson used showed that in many cases, Growth was seen in Economically Disadvantaged Students who were performing Basic and Below Basic, but that there was negative growth with those in this subgroup performing Proficient or Advanced. Remember, these Growth indicators do not mean that Proficient or Advanced students are going backwards, or that Basic and Below Basic are ever going to be Proficient or Advanced. It is just a measure of Growth… in any given year, was there a full year of learning?

The PVAA data can look at indicators District-wide, by school, by Class (exp. the Class of 2023), and down to the individual student level. There is such confidence the data can target issues, the State will begin using it in the State Teacher’s Evaluations.

Drawing the Wrong Conclusions

Dr Newcome rightly explained, to those in attendance, that the PVAA provides so much information, that it could be easily used to prove whatever point an individual wants to make. I agree.

The only scores that anyone should be looking at, to make overall evaluations about the schools, are the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile scores, and the scored areas that make it up.

The drilled down data is for finding trends to focus on… trends within a Class, subgroups, teachers, and individual students.These slices do go into making the SPP scores, but can easily be distorted. If one slice is doing particularly well, or terribly poor, in a particular area, that slice may not represent to true picture.

Shifting Standards of Comparison

One of the most frustrating aspects of trying to discuss Return on Investment, for taxpayers, is the shifting standard by which the District would like to be compared. There are times when the District wants to be compared to only Chester County schools. Sometimes they want Lancaster County schools included in the caparisons. Other times, the District wants to only be compared to adjacent Districts.

The District is now making comparisons based on schools that “most look like Octorara.” They define this as any District, from anywhere in Pennsylvania, with a similar percentage of Economically Disadvantaged Students. However, I don’t know how well this would work. What of a District with a similar number of Economically Disadvantaged, but has a greater percentage of Economically Disadvantaged with IEPs? …or has a greater percentage of Economically Disadvantaged with English as their Second Language? It just becomes a mess.


I can say with certainty the District, all Districts, should have enough information to pinpoint their particular issues. Success will be on how they use this information to adjust school culture, academic rigor, academic support, teacher preparedness and learning. Octorara is betting on Learning Focus to make the difference.

Elena Wilson wanted to stress, when asked about teaching to tests, the goal is to increase performance to make the tests irrelevant. When she asked about if and when the State again changes their assessment systems, she again pointed out the goal is to increase performance to make the assessment systems irrelevant.

As I wrote just a few weeks again, only marginal schools are having the conversations Octorara is having. Those schools that actually do provide an excellent education did well under AYP, and they are scoring well under SPP. Those barely treading water under AYP, are now barely treading water under SPP.

Octorara Area School Board Regular Meeting – October 21, 2013

First, I am going to have to apologize. I did not take the best notes this week. I picked up whatever bug my children brought home. My head was in a little bit of a fog. So, there may be some unintended errors and omissions.

Honor Roll of School Board Service

OctoraraSchoolDistrictEmblemThe Pennsylvania School Boards Association recognizes the contributions, in a formal way, of local school directors with long-term service. School Directors are recognized when they reach exactly 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 28, 32, and so on years of service on a local school board through the Honor Roll of School Board Service.

This year’s  inductees, from the Octorara Area School Board are:

  • Lisa Bowman – 8 years
  • Nelson Stoltzfus – 16 years
  • Samuel Ganow – 16 years
  • Robert Hume – 16 years 

Octorara Heroes

I counted twenty-four high school seniors named Octorara Heroes, members of a mentoring program, with one or two absent. The students serve as role models for 4th grade students, and pledge to remain good students and drug and alcohol free. The honor recognizes student attendance, academic achievement and discipline.
Action Items

All agenda items list at the October 14th Work Session Meeting were passed by unanimous vote without comment  or debate.

Three additional items had been added, and voted on separately. Two were of note.

The first was to approve Mr. Thomas Stern as Event Security. Mr Ganow questioned the use of this individual verses Signal 88 Security, which the District has a contact with. Will this person be armed? Is this person an independent contractor or a District employee.

Dr Newcome explained for small events, the District uses their own people. Mr. Stern is already employed by the District as a substitute, and would not be considered an independent contractor.

The second item was the approval of an agreement between the OASD and the parents of student “A” to attend Concept School.

The Concept School is an independent school with an educational program for students in grades 5-12. They report to “excel in creating a challenging and supportive environment for students who have difficulty focusing in class, struggle with reading comprehension, find social interaction difficult, or for those who seek a small school environment.”

Approval was unanimous, without discussion or debate.

Policy Committee

Mr Ganow reported the committee has just started to look at Policies 801 Public Records, and 806 Required Reports Of Child Abuse By School Employee. First read should be available next month.

Finance Committee

Mr Ganow reported the audit is complete, and the core presentation will be November 18th for Board Members who would like to attend. The District is now required to have their tax collector bonded. As budget season approached, look for a future agenda item asking to opt-out of the use of exemptions.

I.U./C.A.T. Board Representative

Mr Stoltzfus reported teacher contract negotiations have begun.

In other news…

Dr Scott Rohrer, Principle Octorara Senior High School, reported to the Board about “Team O,” a partnership between the school and The Point, local church ministries, the United Way, and other organizations. The group meets twice a year.

This year “Team O’ is focusing on three topics: Attendance, Drug & Alcohol Use, and Bullying. The group split into three committees, and each will meet on a specific topic. The group will them discuss outcomes at their second annual meeting.

Dr Newcome wanted to remind everyone that there will be an Education Committee Meeting on Monday, October 28th at 6pm. The meeting will be held at the Jr./Sr. High School Multi-Purpose Room to accommodate as many people as would like to attend. They will be going deeper into Pennsylvania School Performance Profile scores, what they think the scores mean, and what others think the scores mean.

Lisa Bowman informed the Board the Office of Open Record dismissed my appeal of their Request for Reconsideration. Mr Norris wanted to know the cost of the District’s Request for Reconsideration. Dr Newcome stated the amount was approximately $5,500 to date.

Mr Norris provided a personal anecdote, recalling a conversation with a teacher form the Pequea Valley School District. This particular teacher believed Pequea Valley’s use of Learning Focus has had a big impact with keeping students interested day to day. Norris hopes the Octorara’s teaching staff will “give it a try.”


The Board and Administration stressed (several times) everyone is invited to attend the Education Committee Meeting on Monday, October 28th at 6pm. The meeting will be held at the Jr./Sr. High School Multi-Purpose Room to accommodate as many people as would like to attend. They will be going deeper into Pennsylvania School Performance Profile scores, what they think the scores mean, and what others think the scores mean.

SPP Scores: Has a new day dawned?

PaSchoolPerformanceProfileLogoYesterday was the monthly Octorara Area School Board Work Session Meeting, which the prime focus was their Pennsylvania School Performance Profile presentation.

What impressed me about presentation was the tone set by Elena Wilson, Octorara’s new Director of Curriculum and Instruction.

Gone were the statements from months ago about Octorara’s “world-class education,” replaced now with the idea the District must do better by our kids, no matter how the State measures achievement. Moreover, despite the fishing by some board members, she did no finger pointing or blaming of parents or subgroups for the District’s performance issues.

Dr Newcome introduced Elena Wilson, but wanted to stress several points:

  • The presentation is only a broad overview.
  • This year’s scores are a starting point to work from. (I would disagree with this reboot mentality.)
  • 70 is the minimum standard, and each school has exceeded this standard. (I think exceeds standards is a bit of a stretch.)
  • These scores are not a surprise.
  • The District is already working toward improving scores.

A large portion of yesterday’s presentation includes information we have already posted. Wilson described the new point system, and the various data items used to create a school’s score. She also provided the scores for each of the schools. New information included data surrounding Closing the Performance Gap, which will not be scored until 2014-2015.

It should be no surprise that Octorara falls short in the area of Closing the Performance Gap. The graph Wilson provided showed performance in this area as either generally flat, or negative. She also stressed this measure does not necessarily reflect a decline in skills. It is a measure of how well the schools have done to bring under-performing student performance up over time.

How are they going to fix the issue?

Wilson provided us with a general description of Learning Focused Schools. The boiled down description is to make the focus on learning, rather than teaching. It is suppose to be a completely new paradigm compared to what the District has tried in the past.

The District is in the 2nd year of a 4 year plan that includes:

  • Research Based Instruction
  • Literacy Competency K-12
  • Catching Children Up
  • Regular Assessments

The Learning Focused strategy is intended to provide professional development on planning, implementing, and monitoring/evaluating exemplary lessons from standards that integrate research-based strategies and practices.

Board Questions & Comments

Dr. Sheri Melton (Region 1) asked, what was the unit of measure? She wanted to know if school scores were a points system or some kind of average. Was this an absolute score or a relative standing? She asked, is the goal to reach 100?

Wilson’s reply was straightforward. The score is a points system based on achievement in each area, and not a relative standing. The goal is to get each of our schools to a score of 100, or an A+, within 5 years. I applaud the enthusiasm, but we have to be realistic. With every school in the 70s, this is going to be a slow ship to turn. Closing the Achievement Gap is key to success.

Lisa Bowman (Board President) stated she was at a presentation about SPP, and she believed the Districts had 4-5 years to make half progress for Closing the Achievement Gap, from benchmark to 100.

Wilson commented that she believed that to be true, and explained the State has a complicated formula for creating the goal.

Samuel Ganow (Treasurer) referenced an article that listed each of the elementary schools (Was he talking about mine?), and Octorara did not come out looking good. He wanted to know if this was really comparing apples to apples. He wanted to know how much socioeconomics affects the scores.

Wilson replied that as they make their comparisons, they will be doing side-by-sides with those schools that most look like Octorara.

Brian Norris (Vice President) began his comments with the statement he believes a huge part missing to solve the District’s academic achievement problem is student home life. He believes a large number of students leave school to a home in which education is not a priority.

Norris then switched gears to ask Wilson, what tools the Board can give Administrators to motivate teachers, and to combat possible resistance to change?

Wilson stated she has been an Administrator with the District for six years, and this is the most cohesive the team has been. Administrator walk-thrus begin tomorrow.

Norris then asked about the State providing “extra credit” in the scoring. He stated it seems the focus is always the under-performing and advanced students, while middle students are short changed.

Wilson did not disagree.

Hank Oleyniczak (Region 2) asked if the new standard really are apples to apples, and how comfortable was Wilson with the State measures?

Wilson stated their new approach is to do better for our kids no matter what the state assessment looks like.

This is a BINGO!! Wilson doesn’t come straight out and say it, but only marginal schools are having the conversations Octorara is having. Those schools that actually do provide an excellent education did well under AYP, and they are scoring well under SPP. Those barely treading water under AYP, are now barely treading water under SPP.

Robert Hume (Region 3) stated the District focuses a lot of attention on advanced students, while social promotion has many students moving grades who are not ready. He wanted to know if “electronic learning” would help under-achieving students both learn and stay interested.

Wilson replied the District is using tools and best practices from Learning Focused to achieve that goal.

Lisa Bowmen then added that she was disappointed when she found out about the scores, but not surprised. The District had been chasing targets. The District would focus on math and reading would drop. The District would then focus of reading, then math would drop. She concluded by stating the District needs to be more comprehensive, and do well no matter what changes the State makes in the future.

My thoughts…

Time will tell, but the paradigm shift from teaching to learning sounds like a whole lot of New Age mumbo-jumbo, doesn’t it?

Elena Wilson did a great job explaining the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile. I applaud her for promoting the idea the District needs to perform at a level that makes changes to state assessments irrelevant. I also want to commend her in not taking the bait from those tempting her to play the blame game.

Learning Focused is the District’s attempt to work smarter, not harder. However, it seems they have created a solution without understanding the cause of the problem. Months ago, when I started the discussion about return on investment, Dr Newcome stated he did not know why assessment scores were so low, despite very hard work to bring them up.

We will now be expected to forget the past, forget all about AYP and PSSA assessments, and give the District a reboot based on this year’s benchmark SPP scores and Keystone tests. We have been given a new goal, and 5 years to see if the new plan works.

However, SPP doesn’t give us new information about performance. It just presents what the District knew (or should have known) in a new way. The big change provided by SPP is it is harder to spin.