T he Whitehall Central School district was recently rated as the poorest performing district in Washington County by a weekly business publication in Buffalo, but administrators say the rankings don’t necessarily tell the whole story.
Buffalo Business First ranked 431 school districts across 48 counties in upstate New York and Whitehall received a ranking of 379.
The rankings reflect the collective performance of each district from kindergarten through 12th grade and are based on analysis of standardized test data provided by the state Education Department from 2007-2010.
Although he hasn’t had an opportunity to look at the rankings and therefore couldn’t comment specifically on the analysis done by Business First, Whitehall Superintendent James Watson did offer to discuss school rankings in general.
He said there are several rankings released every year, including one of Capital Region schools, but the district tends to focus its efforts on the New York State School Report Card and state test scores.
“We don’t necessarily look at the rankings,” he said. “We do look at test scores and use them as an instrument to know what we need to do to improve. If we aren’t improving we look for specific areas we are falling behind.
Generally speaking the trends in the statistics show we aren’t doing as well as we’d like but we are working hard to correct that.”
Whitehall Elementary principal David St. Germain said that ranking one school to another isn’t as helpful as examining test scores and determining areas of improvement.
“We’re not competing with Fort Ann Students but with kids fromChinaand around the world.”
The Business First rankings aren’t an all-encompassing tool to manage the effectiveness of a school district.
For instance, the rankings don’t assess factors such as school infrastructure, music programs, theater programs and art, all of which could be considered strengths atWhitehall.
The rankings also didn’t consider quality of life issues and social-economic conditions. As a rule, smaller rural districts like those found in Washington County tend not to score as well on the various rankings. With the exception ofCambridge,SalemandGreenwich,Whitehallwas comparably ranked to other schools in the county.
For instance, Granville was ranked 306, Fort Edward 323,Hartford339, Fort Ann 345, Hudson Falls 366 and Argyle 367.
“In general, theWashingtonCountyschools are there as a group,” Watson said. “Everyone in the county is dealing with the same kind of things.”
Some school rankings also don’t consider statistical anomalies that can profoundly impact a districts ranking.
For instance, 18 percent of the students in theWhitehallschool district have special education needs but in many occasions are grouped in with the rest of the students when it comes to test scores and school rankings.
“They are being asked to do just as well as other students and I don’t consider that a realistic expectation,” Watson said.
He highlighted graduation rates, attendance, foreign language, and English as strengths within the district, and said that despite a lower than desired performance, test scores are improving.
The one area the district needs to improve in is math and science, especially at the Elementary School.
St. Germain said the school has implemented an extended day program that provides students with an extra hour of instruction two days a week.
They have also begun changing the ways they teach, especially in math.
They are switching to a new textbook more in line with the state curriculum and are covering fewer topics each year, but in more depth.
“It’s a whole different approach and it requires a greater depth of understanding,” St. Germain said.
For instance, instructors are asking students to draw out math problems to demonstrate they fully understand how they arrived as a specific answer.
They have also utilized a Response to Intervention program that assesses kids and determines areas where they could use additional help and brought in education experts who have evaluated their programs and offered feedback on how they can improve, which school officials said is the ultimate goal, much more so than receiving a high ranking.
“The scores gives us a strong position to work with our faculty in areas we need improvement and we use that as motivation and direction to improve. It reinforces the message to staff that we need improvement,” Watson said.