Paso schools optimistic on test results

While Paso Robles occupies the county cellar in terms of test results, district officials say its scores show efforts to improve education and increase accountability are working.

“I think these are incredible stats,” said Superintendent Kathy McNamara, looking at the latest state results, released this fall.

Before the school district approved its strategic plan last week, members looked closely at those scores, which ranked the Paso Robles Public Schools the lowest of the county’s five districts. While that ranking might be alarming, a closer look reveals an optimistic trend: Paso schools have improved more than any other district. And the district is the only one to show improvement every year for the past seven years.

“The data is overwhelmingly on the rise,” said Steve Campbell, director of instructional programs.

Continuing that trend, though, will be challenging. Two years of budget cuts totaling $10.6 million have cost the district teachers, special after-school instruction, summer school and an assistant superintendent of curriculum.

“The budget crunch has hurt us,” McNamara said. “But in spite of that, we’re still going to hit the mark.”

When Academic Performance Index scores were released in September, Paso had the county’s lowest results with an overall score of 786 (scores range from 200 to 1000).

But it also showed the greatest improvement — in terms of both points and percentage increases.

Its score was up 74 points from 2004. The next closest, Templeton, was up 64 (from 784), and Lucia Mar was up 58 (from 757).

The benchmark for all schools to achieve is 800. Schools and districts not meeting the standard are placed in “program improvement” status, which can lead to greater scrutiny and state intervention.

While the Paso district has always been behind — and is the only district currently in “program improvement” countywide — it does have unique challenges: It has the most English learners (40 percent of the district’s student population is Latino), and its students are second to last countywide (Lucia Mar being last) in economic background.

“These are the two biggest challenges to achievement,” Campbell said.

Yet, despite that and the budget cuts, scores have increased. The district’s success, officials say, has resulted from a breakdown of data, top-down oversight and teacher training.

The district hired consultants with Action Learning Systems, who then broke test results down to subgroups based on qualifiers such as race, socioeconomic status and disabilities. Then the consultants went to classrooms and analyzed instruction.

Two hundred teachers and administrators were trained on new methods, and from that group, 65 representatives were chosen to analyze data, share training with their schools and monitor progress.

To further the sharing, teachers meet every Wednesday to discuss strategies for improvement. And administrators have stepped up their efforts to ensure accountability.

“It’s not like Kathy writes a memo — ‘You’re doing bad; do better,’ ” said curriculum director Babette DeCou.

McNamara, like DeCou and Campbell, visits each school at least once a month, talking to principals and visiting classrooms, talking to teachers and students. While that might seem like micromanaging, McNamara said the district wants to be sure changes are being implemented.

“People are still suffering growing pains and feeling like, ‘Oh, I just want to close my door and do my thing,’ ” said McNamara, who credited the teachers for improving scores. “That would be OK if the thing we were doing was getting us to the level we needed to be. But we had some broken pieces to our mechanism.”

While five of the district’s 13 schools were designated as program improvement institutions — it takes two straight years of improvement to lose that label — administrators think the new strategies will grow on individual schools as they see improvements at others.

“Success breeds success,” DeCou said.

But with so much attention focused on test results, McNamara acknowledges she’d had some parents question the new strategies.

“When people say to me, ‘Are you teaching to the test?’ — yeah,” she said. “Because that’s what I’m charged to do. I’m charged to teach these standards because they’re going to test me on them. So I’d be an idiot to say, ‘Oh, no — I don’t teach to the test.’ ”

Still, the administrators think better test scores will lead to other positive results, such as higher graduation rates. So as long as scores improve, you can expect the district to stay the course on its plan.

“This isn’t a fad,” McNamara said. “What we all know now is accountability is not going to go away.”