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Our Views: Applaud successes, but don’t oversell Janesville School District test scores

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April 11, 2014

In her column in Friday’s Gazette, Superintendent Karen Schulte expressed elation with new state test scores in the Janesville School District. She was “overcome with emotion” when she saw the scores in math and reading.

Schulte should be proud of the solid improvements at Wilson Elementary School, which traditionally has failed to meet expectations. It’s obvious that Principal Kim Peerenboom and her staff are doing good things in a school with many financially challenged families. It’s good, too, that officials aren’t making excuses for those socioeconomics. After all, a child living in poverty can learn, too.

Likewise, Schulte should be happy that the district exceeded statewide average scores. She’s also right to recognize dedicated teachers and support staff who helped students score well after recent budget cuts trimmed the workforce and state law all but erased collective bargaining, causing frustrations, new work rules and talented employees to retire or leave the district.

Still, Schulte is putting too positive a spin on the data. Sure, the district scored 7 percent higher than the state average in math and 4 percent higher in reading. But a chart in Tuesday’s Gazette tells a different story. Broken down by school, math and reading scores at tested grades total 94 categories. The chart marks 53 categories—more than half—in red for scoring below the level a year earlier.

On Thursday, The Gazette contacted Kevin Murray and Bill Sodemann, school board members re-elected April 1 to their fourth three-year terms. Murray seemed to parrot Schulte’s elation.

“If you rely heavily on test scores and data, we’re doing really well,” Murray said. “I think it’s really encouraging that, across the board, all our employees … were still committed to the children of Janesville, despite all the things that have happened in the near past.”

Murray was ready to talk about merit pay where warranted.

Sodemann, however, struck a more reserved tone. By normal measures, he said, the district did pretty well.

“I was disappointed, especially in the math scores…,” he said. “I saw some good things; we’re still leading the pack, if you will. But I didn’t see the growth in math that I wanted to see across the board.”

The Gazette chart shows 31 of those 53 red marks were in math.

To their credit, Murray, Schulte and Kim Ehrhardt, director of instructional services, agree the district has room for improvement.

“I know a couple of administrators say we’ve got a lot of work to get done, but take some time to enjoy the success and … see what we’re doing right to reach those goals,” Murray said.

“We have much work to do and plenty of opportunities for improvement,” Schulte wrote, noting Ehrhardt acknowledged that in Tuesday’s Gazette.

Ehrhardt said staffers would analyze the data during retreats and create school improvement plans. Sodemann noted the district is enacting more rigorous math curriculum through “Project Redesign” at the high schools. That, however, won’t help if students don’t learn enough in lower grades to meet the challenge.

The district’s “Journey to Excellence,” is applying principles former Janesville resident Quint Studer used to improve health care providers. Applaud the good test scores where praise is warranted. But if excellence is the goal, just being above average and not improving  won’t make the grade.



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