Haywood County Schools is ranked in the top 20 percent in the state for academic performance, according to statewide test scores released Thursday for the 2018-2019 school year.
The performance rankings placed Haywood County Schools 21st out of 115 school districts in the state. While still impressive, the school system has lost standing from its previous rank in the top 10 percent.
“We are still a very good school system, but we don’t like slipping at all,” said Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte.
Following more than a decade of steadily climbing in academic rankings, Haywood County Schools reached the top 10 percent in 2015 and stayed there for two years. There is constant jockeying among top-performing school districts, however, with Haywood County Schools slipping 10 spots over past two years.
“These initial results represent a lot of hard work, as well as a lot of work to be done,” said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jill Barker. “We are proud of the efforts and individual accomplishments of our students, staff and schools.”
There are numerous bright spots in the state test scores. Haywood is seventh in ACT scores statewide and ninth in workforce readiness measures. Haywood Early College is the top early college in the state, Riverbend is second statewide among the cohort of Title I elementary schools and Pisgah is fourth among high schools in the region.
“We have a lot to celebrate including our ACT rank, science scores, graduation rates, schools that increased performance, and schools that consistently rank among the state’s highest performing,” Nolte said.
School leaders have only just begun to process the mounds of data that accompany the release of test scores. Over coming weeks, school leaders will drill down into the performance data for individual schools and curriculum areas — and even a deep dive at the classroom level to see how individual teachers did in specific subjects.
“As always, we will dig into the data and work on areas that need to improve,” Nolte said. “There are literally thousands of lines of data we have to sort through.”
Overall, the percentage of students considered “on grade level” dropped from 67 to 65 percent — still substantially better than the state average of 59 percent.
One preliminary take-away from the test scores is that a targeted math focus in anticipation of a “renorming year” on state math tests paid off.
“Every time they renorm, they are raising the bar a little bit,” Nolte said.
While Haywood County Schools beat the math norming year, scores slipped on reading and English.
“We worked like crazy to teach those math standards, but apparently did not focus as much as we should have to hold our ground in language arts,” Nolte said.
English II scores were so low at Tuscola that it had a ripple effect on the school’s overall performance, with its letter grade dropping from a B to a C.
A subject-level analysis traced a major portion of that drop to one particular English course, where changes in instruction had already been made.
In fact, school officials had already identified certain subjects in certain grades at certain schools that were under-performing and made changes in those classrooms between last year and this year.
“Many years ago when we went from the ‘good to great’ philosophy, we were adamant about saying ‘It’s about effective teaching and having the right people teaching the right stuff,’” Nolte said. “Does the teacher know the standards, can they teach the standards and do they have a relationship with the students to make them interested?”
Tuscola did not meet growth for the second year in a row. Growth is a measure of how much students learned during the school year, based each student’s starting point compared to where they end up — as opposed to a raw score.
Bethel Elementary did not meet growth either, despite having the second highest test scores out of the eight elementary schools in the county. Meadowbrook, meanwhile, met growth despite having the second lowest test scores among elementary schools.
Six of the county’s 14 traditional public schools did not meet growth: Bethel, Hazelwood and North Canton elementary schools; Canton and Waynesville middle schools; and Tuscola High School.
At Tuscola High School, the percentage of students “on grade level” dropped to only 52 percent from 64 percent the year before.
Pisgah High School also saw a substantial drop — with 62 percent of students considered “on grade level” compared to 71 percent the previous year, although it met growth and maintained a B letter grade.
The drop in the percentage of students considered “on grade level” at Pisgah and Tuscola comes with a major caveat, however. The state changed which students’ math scores got counted — namely removing top-performing freshmen from the equation.
Top students who take freshman math while still in middle school historically had those scores counted toward their high school the following year. The state changed that this year, however, removing the cohort of top-performing students from the scoring rubric and bringing down the school’s average as a result.
Every high school in the state was dinged by the same recalculation.
Haywood Early College, meanwhile, pulled out an amazing performance with more than 95 percent of students “on grade level.”
Two Haywood County Schools ranked among the elite group of “A” schools. Schools are assigned a letter grade that summarizes their overall performance. Riverbend Elementary got an A — something achieved by only 4 percent of elementary schools statewide. Haywood Early College also got an A — something achieved by only 20 percent of high schools statewide.
Haywood County Schools has a greater percentage of A and B schools than the rest of the state, and and has never had a school get a D or an F.
“Haywood County Schools has remained in an elite group of school districts with no D or F schools,” Nolte said.
Along with Tuscola dropping from a B to a C, Meadowbrook Elementary also dropped from a B to a C. Meanwhile, Jonathan Valley was the only school to move up a letter grade, going from a C to a B.
The test scores from last school year followed a major shake-up in leadership positions across the school system,
More than one-third of the schools in Haywood County got new principals last year, including both high schools and two of the county’s three middle schools, along with a host of new assistant principals, a new superintendent and two new assistant superintendents. With so many new principals at so many schools, it would be easy fodder to attribute the slight slip to the adjustment year.
But Nolte said the school system wasn’t going there.
“We are not in the business of making excuses. That’s just not what we do,” he said. “It is still our responsibility to do the best we can with student performance.”
Shining Rock Classical Academy, a public charter school, saw a big jump in test scores.
Shining Rock is not part of the Haywood County School system, but operates independently and outside the traditional public school system.
The public charter school had been the lowest performing school in the county for two years, and was below the state average.
Shining Rock once again got a C letter grade, but now has 63 percent of students considered “on grade level” compared to 56 percent the year before. It is also no longer the lowest performing out of K-8 schools in the county, beating out Hazelwood and Meadowbrook elementary schools and Canton Middle.
“At first glance, I am very pleased with the improved outcomes,” said Head of School Joshua Morgan.
School leaders had previously blamed low test scores on a different curriculum and not succumbing to a “teach-to-the-test” mentality. It’s low academic scores coupled with internal management issues and lack of transparency had led to a mass exodus of students from Shining Rock back into Haywood County Schools, however.
Hoping to reverse the perception of trailing behind academically, the school set out to align its curriculum with state standards and testing. Shining Rock beat the improvement goal it had set for itself.
“Clearly the curriculum alignment that was undertaken school-wide has produced the results that we desired faster than expected,” Morgan said. “The foundation for continued growth and success has been laid thanks to the focused determination of our talented and dedicated staff.”