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Ranking Orion

January 23, 2013 - Lake Orion Schools continue to create more value.

So said a new analysis of Orion student performance released last week.

According to a study published in Bridge Magazine, Orion ranks seventh among Oakland County schools.

Orion's altered ranking comes from a new metric used to calculate student performance. The study incorporates a so-called "Value Added-Matrix" (VAM) that considers family income in student assessments.

The new assessment method awards a score of 100 to districts that are performing appropriately for their income levels. According to the new VAM, the Lake Orion district, where nearly 20 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches, ranks seventh in Oakland County with a score of 105.5.

In effect, this means Orion is overachieving in relation to its student income levels. This recalculation puts Orion in the state's top 20 percent.

Education experts have long contended that families with lower incomes produce students who begin kindergarten far behind peers from wealthier families.

For example, financially disadvantaged students are "exposed to fewer words as children and they typically have fewer books in the home," said Ron French, education analyst for Bridge Magazine.

Lake Orion assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction Heidi Kast agreed with French, and said income levels do have a detrimental effect on student performance.

"Research says, and we find the same, that students who come from lower socio-economic status are often students who have not been exposed to books, pre-school, and other opportunities that can benefit educationally," she said.

Visiting a museum, zoo, library, play, historical site, or similar opportunities contribute to a child's readiness for success in an academic environment. These educational opportunities remain luxuries for many families with lower incomes.

If the claim that income level has a negative influence on academic performance is true, then a measurement that accounts for improvement per student is needed to accurately assess student performance; hence, the new VAM and new ranking for Orion schools.

As Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest explained to Bridge, "We should not evaluate schools solely on raw scores, because that doesn't take into account where those students were when they entered the classroom".

So what has Lake Orion schools done that has launched them into top ten in Oakland County? "I really think that what's going on is that we deal with each student individually," Kast offered.

Orion teachers focus on specific gaps students face; in the case of lower income students, those deficits often have to do with access to materials and experiences so Orion teachers make sure those needs are answered first.

What's more, "a lot of time some basic needs (e.g. food, clothing) are not met," Kast said. These issues have to take priority before learning can begin.

At Orion, it's not just the students from lower-income families who receive this individual attention. It's "across the board," Kast said. "It's not like we zero in on a particular group; we look at every kid." For higher-performing students, "we make them go further," Kast said.

So how does Orion find and reach each student's areas of deficit? There is a time and a place for summative standardized assessments like the MEAP or ACT, but the tests that gauge individual student growth are the key to Orion's success, Kast indicated.

While standardized tests are valuable and Orion does not lower expectations for lower performing students, Kast said the "formative assessments—which are the assessments that are measuring growth along the way— those are critical."

At Orion schools, teachers conduct these formative tests weekly and bi-weekly. Kast thinks this is making the difference, and helps explain why Orion schools now rank seventh in Oakland County.

The new metric reframes the work teachers do, and raises questions about the way they are evaluated and how schools are to be funded. In the context of student growth, not abstract testing standards, what differentiates failure from success and how should educators be supported in their endeavors?

"I think that when we're looking at teacher evaluation and how schools are being funded," Kast explained, many calculations "do not take in to account students that have had issues that we have no control over, but yet are held responsible and accountable for dealing with."

Kast is quick to stress that she has no problem with being held accountable for student performance; "however, I don't think we should get punished for a student where our first priority is making sure they have food."

Assessment standards purport to put everyone on the same playing field, but the reality is that students do not have the same access and developmental opportunities, Kast contended.

But "just because a student comes to us from a low socio-economic status, that does not mean that we lower our expectations—not at all," Kast insisted. "However, I think when it comes to funding, [schools] shouldn't be punished."

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