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EXCLUSIVE: Middle schools in LAUSD trail in state rankings and are getting worse, with more than half getting the lowest possible rank

Sarah Favot | December 13, 2016



(Click on the red dot on the map for the school name and its rankings.)

*UPDATED

LA Unified middle schools rank far behind their elementary and high school counterparts and trail middle schools throughout the state, an LA School Report analysis of statewide school ranking data from California Charter Schools Association has found.

And in both LA Unified and statewide, middle schools dropped in the rankings from 2015 to 2016.

The data released last month rank all public schools in the state — district and charter — on a scale of 1 to 10 based on students’ scores on the new Common Core-aligned tests, called the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP).

More than half of the district’s 85 ranked middle schools — 56 percent — were assigned the lowest overall ranking of 1 based on tests taken by students in spring 2016. Two middle schools weren’t ranked.

Comparatively, 20 percent of the district’s ranked elementary schools received the lowest rank as did 31 percent of its high schools.

Middle schools across California also ranked behind elementary and high schools, but the disparity was wider in LA Unified.

Statewide, 23 percent of non-charter middle schools were given the lowest rank, while 12 percent of elementary schools were ranked 1 as were 12 percent of high schools.

The CCSA rankings are in two categories — overall statewide rank and schools with similar demographics. The rankings use two years of data, as 2016 was the second year of the state tests, which are also known as Smarter Balanced tests or SBAC. The tests are taken by students online each spring, and students are tested in English language arts and math.

The LA School Report analysis also included state Department of Education demographic data, state standardized test scores and LA Unified school budget summary reports.

The CCSA data categorize schools as either charter or non-charter but do not distinguish schools with magnet programs from traditional middle schools.

Of the 622 LA district schools given rankings, 433 are elementary (70 percent), 85 are middle (14 percent) and 104 are high schools (17 percent). Span schools and alternative high schools were not part of the rankings.

THE FINDINGS

Zero middle schools were given the highest rank of 10 on the overall statewide rankings, district or charter.

Comparatively, 2 percent of district elementary schools were ranked 10 and 1 district high school out of 104 was ranked 10 (about 1 percent).

Four charter schools were given the second-highest rank of 9: KIPP Los Angeles College Preparatory, Alfred B. Nobel Charter Middle, Renaissance Arts Academy and The City School.

The highest overall statewide rank for a district middle school was 8. Three district schools were assigned that ranking: Palms Middle on the westside, Robert Frost Middle in Granada Hills and Rudecinda Sepulveda Dodson Middle in Rancho Palos Verdes. Both Frost and Palms have a School of Advanced Studies for gifted and talented students and magnet programs. Palms has a Gifted-High Ability Magnet School, and Frost has a STEM Magnet. Dodson also has a Gifted-High Ability Magnet. The district’s Gifted-High Ability magnets have an admission process that requires students to take a test to determine whether they can work two years above grade level.

Eighteen middle schools ranked 10 in the “similar students” ranking, 16 of which were charter schools. The two district middle schools were Palms and Dodson.

The highest-performing middle school was Robert Frost Middle. There were 36 LAUSD schools that ranked higher than Frost. Most were elementary schools.

• READ MORE: Middle school close-up: Palms Middle succeeds by investing in teacher training

This year 68 middle schools were given the lowest rank, a 1 out of 10, an increase over 2015. Statewide, the number of middle schools with the lowest ranking also increased in 2016.

Of the 68 middle schools that ranked 1, 20 are charters and 48 are district schools. Here is a link to those schools.

Of those 68 schools that ranked 1 overall, 14 also were given the lowest ranking in the similar students metric that compares schools with similar demographics. Twelve of the 14 are district schools:

Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy
Berendo Middle
Bret Harte Preparatory Middle
Dr. Julian Nava Learning Academy-School of Arts and Culture
Florence Nightingale Middle
Francisco Sepulveda Middle
Robert Fulton College Preparatory
Southeast Middle
Van Nuys Middle
Vista Middle
Walnut Park Middle A School of Social Justice and Service Learning
Young Oak Kim Academy

The two charters are: North Valley Military Institute College Preparatory Academy and View Park Preparatory Accelerated Charter Middle.

The data also show that more LA Unified middle schools were given the worst ranking in 2016 than in 2015: 48 and 39, respectively. The pattern held for middle schools across the state. In 2015, 212 of non-charter middle schools statewide ranked 1. In 2016, 281 middle schools ranked 1.

• READ MORE: Middle school close-up: Nava Learning Academy has nowhere to go but up

Derrick Chau, the district’s senior executive director of instruction, declined to comment on the findings based on the CCSA data.

“We don’t generally comment on an accountability system that we’re not accountable to,” Chau said.

He said CCSA uses a different methodology than solely relying on SBAC test scores.

But Elizabeth Robitaille, CCSA’s senior vice president of achievement and performance management, said the ranks are based only on SBAC scores. She noted that CCSA does use other measures in addition to test scores in other published reports on school accountability.

The newly released rankings are calculated by the average number of scale score points above or below the “met” standard. She said the state Board of Education is considering this specific measure (not the rank but the underlying “distance from met” measure) as one of four options for its academic indicator as part of the state’s new accountability system.

“We have to focus on what our schools are doing and how to build the capacity of our schools,” Chau said. “We can’t always necessarily compare to the state.”

While Chau rejected the CCSA rankings and declined to address how LA Unified compared to state schools, he did note the state test score improvements made in middle schools this year. The district, and the state, improved overall on the state tests as well.

The district trails the state in both English language arts and math test scores in the middle grades.

THE CHALLENGE OF MIDDLE SCHOOLS: EXPERTS WEIGH IN

The findings of the LA School Report analysis were no surprise to school board member Ref Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, who co-founded Partnerships to Uplift Communities charter schools, including a middle school in his neighborhood in Northeast Los Angeles, penned a board resolution “Reimagining the Middle Grades” in January calling for the board to focus on the district’s nearly 200,000 middle school students.

“The middle grades have been set up like junior high schools, in fact, they were called junior high schools once. And so, we’re trying to do something for an age group that doesn’t actually work,” he said.

Aside from birth to age 2, the middle school years are the time when children see the most developmental changes with the onset of puberty, experts say.

Rodriguez noted that there are no teaching credentials for the middle grades; typically teachers specialize in one subject. And so there is no requirement that middle school teachers understand how to teach children who are going through major changes in their lives.

Rodriguez sits on the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. He said he doubted that the credential would be changed, but he said it’s up to employers, universities and teacher training programs to teach these skills.

Rodriguez thinks the middle grades should be thought of as fourth through ninth grades. Rodriguez noted Superintendent Michelle King has included a focus on middle schools as part of her strategic plan.

Chau oversees the middle school initiative spearheaded by Rodriguez.

“We have a focused attention on the performance of our middle-grade students,” Chau said. “That is ongoing work.”

School board member Richard Vladovic, who represents the south area of the district, is also hopeful that changes can be made.

“Middle school is where we lose the kids, whether it’s English learners or others, we lose them from 5 to 6th or in traditional schools 6th to 7th grades and you can see the drop-off. And I believe we can change that,” Vladovic said.

Benjamin Feinberg is an 8th-grade math teacher at Luther Burbank Middle School who uses school district data to teach his students and has a blog called “School Data Nerd.” He has written posts on and done data analysis on the CCSA ranking data.

He wrote in a post that the data seem “pretty legit.” He clarified that he was skeptical of the data at first because CCSA is an advocacy organization.

“I found that their data seems very valid (anecdotally) and that their data has many negative things to say about charter schools as well,” he wrote.

In an interview, he said he found the “similar students ranking” to be a fair comparison point.

“It’s well documented that demographics have a major influence on our education system. However, we should set a high goal of achieving a high overall rank.”

Luther Burbank Middle School in Highland Park was once among the district’s worst-performing schools and plagued with gang problems, according to a 2012 story by EGP News. The school was reconstituted by the district in 2011, which meant that all of its teachers and staff had to reapply for their jobs. In 2016, it was ranked a 5 in overall statewide rank and a 9 in similar student rank. The school was placed on the state’s prestigious “Schools to Watch” list in January, which recognizes schools that have shown great improvements and are held up as model schools.

Burbank Middle’s principal, Christine Moore, is part of the working group formed in response to Rodriguez’s resolution on “Reimagining the Middle Grades.”

The district has also launched a pilot accreditation program for middle schools through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which accredits 54 district high schools. Schools will be visited by WASC officials, receive feedback on areas of improvement and will have one year to implement the changes, according to Nightingale Principal Rafael Gaeta.

Nightingale is one of the schools preparing for accreditation visits as well as Dodson, Frost, Irving, Oak Kim Academy and White middle schools. The schools, chosen by King in July, will be evaluated in 2017.

Nightingale is among the district’s lowest performers. Gaeta has been principal for a year. The school has two new magnet programs and is applying to open a medical magnet in fall of 2018 transforming the remainder of the school into a magnet. Its Business Entrepreneurial and Technology Magnet is in its second year, and its Gifted STEM Magnet Center opened this year.

“For whatever reason, our community is looking for us to do something different. Just by having that magnet focus and small school feel, the kids end up doing better,” Gaeta said.

To improve its SBAC scores, Gaeta said his teachers wanted to give students an additional interim assessment before they take the tests. The district requires an interim test in the fall and in the spring, but Nightingale teachers wanted another interim test in the spring.

“A lot of it with the testing, especially in middle school, is making sure students are comfortable with the test questions and the platform. The more comfortable they get, the better they’ll be able to do,” Gaeta said.

Sources interviewed for this article noted the challenges that middle schools face in LA and nationally, as well as the differences between the SBAC testing process for elementary, middle and high school students.

One major difference is that only in middle school are the tests administered the first year that students enter the school. In elementary school, students are not tested until 3rd grade, and in high school, students are only tested in 11th.

At the elementary level, generally, the school staff have seen a student since kindergarten and can have a pretty good idea of where students stand by third grade and interventions can be put in place if a student is behind in reading, for example. At the high school level, students who drop out tend to do so before they reach 11th grade, sources said.

Another difference is size.

One of the larger middle schools, Nobel Middle School, for example, has nearly 2,500 students.

Class sizes also increase in middle school. Typically 35 students are in classes, but classes can be as large as 40 students.

Another major change from elementary to middle school is the teacher. In elementary school, one teacher stands at the front of the classroom every day. In middle school, the student’s days are split up into periods with a different teacher for each subject, up to seven or eight per day.

Rodriguez noted that the sixth-grade students have just a few months to adapt to the routines and rhythms of a new school before they take the SBAC tests in the spring.

“You’ve only had them for six, seven months at the most, with all the breaks and everything that you get in between,” he said.

• Read more on this data: A look inside a middle school that ranked high in the data, Palms Middle, and a school that ranked among the worst, Dr. Julian Nava Learning Academy.

• Read more on middle schools: 

• Where have all the middle school students gone? The key battlefield in LAUSD enrollment drop

• LAUSD middle schools in the CORE accountability index: The same old story on race and location applies

• Middle school incident reports top high schools for first time at LAUSD; suicidal behavior is up


LA School Report’s Mike Szymanski contributed to this article.

*UPDATED: This article has been corrected to reflect that the CCSA ranking data is only based on SBAC test scores; clarified to show the California Board of Education is considering the “distance from met” measure as one of four options for its academic indicator, and to correct Elizabeth Robitaille’s title.

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