Iowa Department of Education report: Increasing poverty, diversity found

Credit-recovery programs as a potential factor

Published: January 16 2014 | 6:00 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:15 am in
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One day after Gov. Terry Branstad delivered the Condition of the State Address, Iowans got a closer look at the system serving the 508,500 kindergarten through grade 12 students enrolled in Iowa’s public and private schools during the 2012-13 academic year.

The state’s public school population – 476,245 students in 2012-13 – continued to make history as being more ethnically diverse than ever before, according to the 2013 Annual Condition of Education Report, which the Iowa Department of Education released Wednesday. One in five public-school learners – 20.2 percent – is a student of color, up from 19.3 percent in 2011-12.

Hispanic students continued to be the largest nonwhite public student group in the state, comprising 9.3 percent of students in 2012-13, an increase from 8.9 percent in 2011-12. Jay Pennington, chief of the Bureau of Information and Analysis Services for the department, said he expects this trend to continue – “I’m honestly surprised it’s not more,” he said – and have implications for educators throughout the state.

“We’re seeing both sides of that, where smaller communities are seeing more Hispanic students but in those larger districts we’re also seeing more diverse students,” Pennington said. “You need to look at the population and the supports that exist. … An example is for teachers, the cultural competence that exists to ensure that you’re being sensitive to the background and the culture of that student. That you know properly how to engage the family, especially if mom and dad are first generation.”

Public schools’ population of pupils qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches also increased. That category included 41 percent of students in 2012-13, a jump from the 40.1 percent recorded in 2011-12.

“It’ll be interesting to see, the economy, for all intents and purposes has begun to rebound,” Pennington said. “That hasn’t really affected school-age kids. You’re seeing more families facing challenges in the school system. What schools need to think about is how they provide supports for students, particularly poverty related, have the tendency to score below their peers.”

Aside from demographic information, the report also included performance data. The state’s four-year cohort high-school graduation rate continued to grow, reaching 89.3 for the class of 2012, compared to 88.3 for the class of 2011. Pennington said that increase is “definitely good news,” but opted against citing a specific cause.

“I think it’s difficult to say exactly why that’s happening,” he said, though he mentioned credit-recovery programs as a potential factor. “I think we would have to dig into district practices.”

The report also included a new section devoted to exploring the impact of teacher retention on student performance.

“I think looking at issues like mobility, who’s staying in your building and who’s leaving is critical,” Pennington said. “We don’t know the causation or the direction of it, but we do know there’s clearly differences seen.”

Reading proficiency data from 2009-13 showed that high-performing schools, ones whose student populations demonstrated above-average proficiency and increased that population, had a 68 percent teacher-retention rate over that period, the report reads.

Schools with a smaller-than-average student population demonstrating proficiency that did not grow over time retained 57 percent of teachers during that same window of time, the lowest retention rate in the study.

“There’s a culture within that building and to see large changes in turnover and staff year after year, it’s difficult to really build continuity to families (and) continuity to policies you’re trying to implement,” Pennington said of the results. “If you’re seeing large portions of your workforce turn over, that’s going to be disruptive.”

The report also includes an update to the department’s summer 2013 study on the academic performance of third-graders who formerly participated in the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program, which began in 2007-08 and served 23,617 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds in 2012-13. The report showed that the second cohort, students in 2008-09, had slightly higher math and reading scores on the Iowa Assessments than their counterparts who did not attend preschool. Those comparative increases held true for third-graders who had attended any form of preschool – not necessarily the statewide program – when judged against students who did not.

“You have an overwhelming body of knowledge that exists,” Pennington said. “The question is, ‘What are the right investments?’ I think we have a really good model to build from. … We’re not seeing the return on student achievement that we would like to see.”

Pennington acknowledged the importance of looking at student performance data but said the benefits of the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program may exist outside of test scores, such as the amount of students who do not require additional behavior interventions or social supports as they move through the school system.

Pennington favored an approach of viewing the report’s findings individually instead of as an overall judgment of Iowa’s educational offerings.

“There is no single conclusion that you can draw from the report,” he said. “There’s certainly a lot of positives you can see about our students, teachers and our schools, but there’s also areas for improvement.”

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