ELKTON — Scores remained steady for the majority of Cecil County Public Schools in the second year of the state’s five-star rating system, which considered elementary and middle school science test scores and the results of school surveys among students and teachers for the first time.
Most CCPS schools earned the same overall rating that they saw with last year’s Maryland Report Card, although a handful experienced positive or negative changes of one point.
Superintendent Jeff Lawson said this year’s results delivered “not a whole lot of surprises.” However, both Lawson and Associate Superintendent for Education Services Carolyn Teigland said it is difficult to compare the two years of the new report card due to the addition of science test scores and school surveys this year, as well as the ever-changing Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program (MCAP).
“It’s kind of difficult to compare last year’s results to this year’s results because it’s not the same instrument as it was,” Teigland said.
Eleven schools earned three stars for their overall score while 17 schools earned four stars. Of those schools, three increased their rating by one point, six decreased by one point, and 19 experienced no change to their overall rating year to year. The Cecil County School of Technology was not included in the report card because it is not a comprehensive school.
No CCPS schools took home five stars this year — a departure from last year’s report card in which three schools earned five stars — but no schools received one or two stars either.
That score distribution is consistent with statewide results which reflected fewer Maryland schools scoring at the highest and lowest ends of the rating spectrum and more schools trending toward the middle of the field, according to analysis by the Baltimore Sun.
As a whole, CCPS earned an average of 3.6 out of five stars, a slight decrease from last year’s average of 3.7 stars.
The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) initially rolled out the five-star-rating-based system last year in compliance with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The accountability system gives less weight to academic achievement as a measurement of success, although it still takes it into consideration among other factors.
In addition to academic achievement, the system scores schools based on academic progress, school quality and student success, and progress in achieving English language proficiency.
MCAP and other test scores
Although he considers himself a strong advocate for the importance of test scores, Lawson said comparing MCAP scores from one year to the next can present a challenge when school systems do not understand the state’s expectations associated with the assessment.
“I do believe that it’s an important measurement that we have to pay attention to, but it’s been a moving target for quite some time now,” he said.
When students take the MCAP this spring, Lawson said the test will not only feature new questions but also new question structures. He added that school officials do not expect to see the results from that round of testing until next January.
It is difficult for schools to improve how they are teaching material when the test itself is changing so much, Lawson said.
“If you’re telling me this is what’s important, tell me and we’ll work towards that,” he said. “Don’t change it year to year and expect us to really focus on improving when we’re not sure really what the goal is.”
When schools are looking at what they did wrong a year ago, Teigland said it is difficult to adapt in a timely manner.
“If we don’t get the results until January, there’s not a lot of things we can do to make improvements until the next assessment,” she said.
Because of MCAP’s unpredictability, Lawson said CCPS focuses on data from Measures of Adequate Progress (MAP), a computer-adapted assessment that the school system gives to students in September and May.
The test, which tailors questions to each student as they answer correctly or incorrectly, gives teachers immediate feedback and allows them to better track students’ growth over time, according to Lawson.
In addition to MAP, Lawson said CCPS looks at SAT scores. The school system provides a countywide SAT Day in April, which allows all CCPS students to take the SAT at no cost to their families.
MSDE implemented a statewide school survey, which was taken by students in grades 5 through 11 and educators in every school, as part of this year’s report card. The results of that survey contributed to schools’ scores within the school quality and student success section of the report card.
While MSDE is not releasing the survey questions to administrators, a prepared statement from State Superintendent Karen B. Salmon noted that the survey “provides information about safety, community, environment, and relationships, all of which are important factors in supporting a positive learning environment for all students.”
Lawson said the survey results for CCPS revealed a disconnect between educators’ and students’ perceptions of their schools.
“As a school system, our educators feel more favorably towards our school system than do their peers statewide … On the flip side, our students’ scores are below state average really across the board,” he said.
In the coming weeks, Lawson said school officials will be asking student leaders to meet with student focus groups to glean a clearer picture of what those students experience day to day and how CCPS can make improvements.
According to Lawson, those focus groups will only be with middle and high school students, not elementary school students, because the survey focused on students in grades 5 through 11.
When it comes to making improvements based on the survey results, much of the change will need to come at the individual school level, according to Teigland.
“The principals have to own this data and they have to value the data as something that they need to respond to … The leaders of the building are responsible for the culture in the building, and they have to own that responsibility and actually be actively trying to make improvements toward the culture of that school.”
Lawson said he and other administrators have been encouraging principals to pay close attention to their school’s survey results.
“When it comes to communicating a positive culture, trust, those things are really important to me — more than test scores, frankly. Because if you get all that in place, your test scores will come,” he said.
Beyond the school survey that was part of the report card, Lawson added that CCPS continues to welcome feedback from students, staff and other community members.
“I think as a system, we take surveys pretty seriously … all to create an environment where at least people understand that their voice is being heard. It doesn’t mean we can fix everything, but I want them to be comfortable coming to tell me something,” he said.
Following the release of last year’s report card, CCPS officials looked to school attendance as an area in which they hoped to improve.
The report card measures chronic absenteeism as a student being absent 10% or more of the school year, or 18 out of 180 days, however CCPS has historically measured chronic absenteeism starting at the 25% mark.
That means students were being considered chronically absent by state standards even if they had not reached CCPS’s maximum number of absences.
Maryland’s 896,837 public school students had a 93.5% attendance rate during the 2018-2019 school year. Comparatively, CCPS’s 15,307 students had a 92.6% attendance rate.
To better align with state standards and improve the school system’s ranking, CCPS officials revised its school attendance regulation at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year. Now, students can miss no more than 17 days of school per year until they will be considered chronically absent and may be prevented from passing their classes.
Students who are considered chronically absent are able to earn back the days they were absent by attending an after-school program called the Twilight School, where students can make up classwork they missed, retake tests and get additional help if needed.
The school attendance regulation change came too late to affect this year’s ratings, as the report card drew on data from the 2018-2019 school year. But Lawson expects to see improvement in student attendance and, in turn, school ratings next year.
Already, Lawson said CCPS has seen school attendance improve since the regulation change.
“On any given day, you have anywhere from 150 to 200 more students attending school than we did last year,” he said.
As more students attend school consistently, Teigland said more students will have access to the educational resources that could affect schools’ scores in other areas of the report card.
“If they come to school, we can get them to engage in the things that we’re offering at school,” she said.
Equitable access to resources
Although scores differed from school to school, Teigland said CCPS offers consistent resources at each of its comprehensive schools.
“For a student that wants to access everything that we have to offer, they’re getting that whether their school is rated as a five-star or a three-star,” she said.
Teigland added that she believes the star ratings are not necessarily a measurement of what students have access to in Cecil County schools, rather they show whether students are in fact accessing those already available resources.
“Our curricular offerings are consistent, the quality of teaching is consistent, but some of our kids who are living in poverty or have other life circumstances that make it difficult to engage don’t necessarily engage at the same level as students who have more in their background that supports the educational process.”
As the mother of two CCPS students, Teigland said she is pleased with her children’s school experiences because her kids access “everything the schools have to offer.”
“My kids both go to schools that were rated three-star schools in Cecil County,” she said. “They both have fantastic experiences. I have not one complaint as a parent in terms of the experience my kids have received and they’re in needy schools.”
Teigland said principals and assistant principals must continue the work they are already doing to address the needs of students from backgrounds that may impede their access to needed resources.
“Principals and assistant principals are very keyed into those students who really aren’t accessing schools to the level that they should be,” she said. “They do a lot of individual work with those kids to try to get them more engaged and to try to help support them in the ways that they may not be being supported in other areas of their life.”
Rating the report card
According to Teigland, most people can understand the overall five-star ratings, but it can be difficult for parents and other members of the public to grasp the specifics of the sub-categories due to MSDE’s “complicated formulas.”
“You can’t stand up in front of a PTO (parent-teacher organization) and try to explain to parents how exactly [their child’s school] got the rating they got.”
Next year, Teigland hopes MSDE will make the report card more easily digestible for the everyday citizen.
Although Lawson said the report card offers valuable insights into individual schools and the school system as a whole, it is not the only measurement.
The best way to understand what is happening in CCPS is to visit one, Lawson said. He’ll even join you.
“If a parent or a constituent or a community member, anybody, wants to get a sense of the school, pick up the phone … Tell me what you want to see and we’ll go see a classroom and then you judge for yourself,” he said.