Superintendent's Notebook: Showing Portland its ROI on student achievement

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This is the time of year when Maine school districts begin the school budget process, asking our communities to show their support for public education by investing in it.

But when they back our public schools, how do community members know what ROI – return on investment – they’re getting?

The Portland Public Schools is a trailblazer in the state in providing an answer to that question for members of our community. We’re using two important new metrics to show how we’re utilizing their investment: the District Scorecard and a survey of parents’ and high school students’ perspectives on our schools.

As we deliver on our pledge of having all students graduate from high school prepared for college and career, the scorecard and survey give parents and other community members a robust picture of student achievement and school climate.

The District Scorecard gives data about student performance on state assessments in reading, writing, math and science, and for English language learners’ performance on the ACCESS test. It also sets performance targets and includes data about student attendance, high school graduation rates, enrollment in AP classes, PSAT and SAT scores, and other indicators of college readiness.

And the results are not just reported for the district as a whole, but also for subgroups: white, Asian, black or African-American, Hispanic/Latino, economically disadvantaged, students with identified disabilities, and students with limited English proficiency.

If that sounds like a lot of data, it is. Our District Scorecard isn’t just based on one point in time or a single assessment, but instead looks at where students are growing and other indicators of student success. The Portland Public Schools is a leader in the state in using multiple measures to look at our data.

Tracking all this data allows us to be transparent about the return on the investment to community members who support our schools.

The scorecard data shows areas where we’re making gains and moving in the right direction.

For example, there was positive growth in SAT scores, with an increase district-wide in the percentage of students who scored 1550 and above. The percentage of Advanced Placement exams taken that resulted in a score of 3 or higher also increased, from 60 percent to 64 percent. And blacks or African-Americans and economically disadvantaged students in grade five made solid gains in reading and writing, and also boosted their performance in math.

But the scorecard also indicates areas where we’re not growing as much as we’d like. For example, the scorecard showed that scores for third-graders in the black or African-American and economically disadvantaged groups trailed well behind total scores for district third-graders in reading and math.

Third-grade reading ability is considered a key indicator of future academic success, so that data shows us we must do more and invest more to ensure our students’ demography does not determine their destiny.

The results of our survey were very positive. For instance, when parents were asked to agree or disagree with a statement saying they felt welcomed and respected at school, 95 percent of those who expressed an opinion agreed with it.

Also, when our high school students were asked to agree or disagree with a statement saying they expected to graduate, 95 percent of those who expressed an opinion agreed with it.

We’ll be conducting additional surveys, but are already using the information from this one to inform decision-making and improve our schools.

The Portland Public Schools is blazing a trail when it comes to showing the community its ROI in our schools. But really, you don’t need a business term to describe what we’re doing. We’re simply putting students and families first, and this is what that looks like.

As we move into the fiscal 2016 school budget process, the scorecard will help us identify key areas where we’ll be investing in strategies for improvement. And we invite community members to give us input on the budget at a Town Hall meeting on Thursday, Jan. 29, at 6:30 p.m. at Lyman Moore Middle School.

We’ve also created an online Neighbor-to-Neighbor Budget Toolkit to encourage public participation in the budget. The toolkit is at portlandschools.org.

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Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk writes this column monthly. He can be reached at superintendent@portlandschools.org. Read his blog at blogs.portlandschools.org/superintendent/.

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