RMHS accountability rating skewed by inclusion of online students

RMHS Grizzly
RMHS Grizzly

Based on most recent assessments Rocky Mountain High School students are, for the most part, meeting and exceeding academic expectations. One hundred percent of the students participated in assessment tests and have demonstrated their readiness both for graduation and for college and careers.

The students test as high or higher than other schools in the state and as high or in many cases higher than other schools in the immediate area (Powell, Lovell, Cody). In spite of those facts, Rocky Mountain High School students have been labeled as “not meeting expectations” in the State’s recently released Wyoming Accountability in Education report.

The Wyoming Accountability in Education Act (WAEA) was enacted by the Wyoming legislature in 2013 with the goal of identifying schools that are doing well and those that need help. The determination of that status is based on a number of factors including participation (how many students took tests in the ACT suite of tests), scores on those tests, overall readiness (graduation rate within a specified time period, 4 years, Hathaway eligibility and students entering the ninth grade with 25 percent of credits already under their belt toward graduation.

Schools receive ratings based on these factors and those ratings are being posted online for the first time this year. The rating categories include exceeding, partially meeting or not meeting expectations.

Though RMHS students have actually met or exceeded all of these requirements, students from the online school Connections Academy have not and the data from those students is included in this year’s calculations, painting a very inaccurate picture of how well the students and teachers at the school are performing.

“Overall we’re being labeled as not meeting expectations, however, our academic performance is as best as it can get and we are exceeding expectations in that area,” explained Big Horn County School District No. 1 Supt. Shon Hocker. “Our achievement targets (test scores) are meeting expectations.  The big kicker is that our participation rate (percentage of students taking assessment tests in the ACT suite of tests) is low because of the online school students.

“If you are not meeting the required participation rate, you are automatically docked one performance level in that category.”

Though 100 percent of the RMHS students took the required ACT suite of tests, only 88.8 percent of the online students were able to take the tests, bringing the entire score down for the group.

Hocker said the reason the participation rate was low for online students, who are scattered throughout the state, is that those students have to go to their nearest “brick and mortar” school to take the test in an “authorized” ACT testing site. He said though a high percentage of those online students tried to take the test, many were turned away (12-13 percent) because the school nearest them was unable to accommodate them.

Another factor that affected the rating was the number of online students who entered the ninth grade lacking the required 25 percent of credits toward graduation. Hocker explained that many of those students have received most of their education in a home school setting, where they may have learned the same academic material, but did not receive credit for it.

Hocker noted that another online school in the state actually turns students away who don’t have those credits. He said he didn’t think it was fair to those students, who often are very motivated and able to make up the difference by putting in a little extra effort.

“We don’t want to turn homeschooled students away who want to enter the system,” said Hocker. “That’s not what we’re about. We want to help anyone who wants to learn.”

He added that he has seen an increase in students deficient in credits trying to get into the Connections Academy. The school currently has a list of 150 students trying to get in. Of the 350 students attending the school, more than a third are studying at the high school level and 39 percent of those students are credit deficient when entering the ninth grade.

He said another factor that affected the rating is that the online students do not necessarily graduate with their cohort group within the WAEA required four-year time period. Where 22 out of the 23 graduated in the RMHS cohort group, only eight out of 28 graduated from the online school.

Hocker explained that there are a number of reasons for the low graduation rate for online students. One reason is that students who decide to “try” out the school but then later go back to homeschooling tends to be relatively high for the small group. Another factor is that students entering the school who are deficient in credits sometimes need more time to make up the difference, especially if they are working simultaneously on the family farm or ranch or outside of the home while attending school, which he said is the case for many online students. Though many of these students ultimately do graduate, it is not counted if it takes longer than four years.

At the Big Horn County School District No. 1 board meeting held on Tuesday, Nov. 11, RMHS Principal Tim Winland and Curriculum Director Patrice Riley presented test scores for RMHS showing the students, in most cases, testing above the state in the ACT suite of tests.

They also presented a comparison of the RMHS to neighboring schools within the district. When Connections Academy student scores were removed from the data, the students actually were number one in many areas. Using data for 11th grade students as an example, Winland said RMHS students tested 56 percent higher in Math, 50 percent higher in reading and 47.7 percent higher in science when the online student scores were removed from the data.

Hocker said he has made repeated attempts to rectify the situation through the Wyoming Dept. of Education, including contacting State Supt. of Education Cindy Hill, interim director Richard Crandall and talking to local legislators about the problem.

He said the data would be much more meaningful if the online school was considered separately, so that administrators from that school could use the information to improve student performance. He added his concern that, since the information is now available online, it paints a very unappealing picture for parents who may be considering whether or not to move to the area. He added that it is demoralizing for students, teachers and administrators to be incorrectly characterized as “less than” other schools in the area.

By Patti Carpenter