Superintendent finds signs of growth in the numbers

Published 7:00 pm Friday, May 24, 2013

Editor’s Note: Faced with increasing criticisms of her leadership as superintendent of the Brookhaven School District, Lisa Karmacharya sat for an interview last week to discuss her record. This is the first of two articles reporting on Karmacharya’s answers to her critics.

Standardized tests have been taken and the academic year’s end is here, but for Lisa Karmacharya, superintendent of Brookhaven schools, the chapter of the 2012-13 school year won’t be completed until scores are released and performance labels revealed.

This will be her second full year on the job as superintendent, and, though she said she’s optimistic about some of the data she’s seen this year, Karmacharya knows several years of mediocre performance labels have contributed to unrest within the school community.

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Some district parents and community members have become increasingly vocal with criticisms of Karmacharya. Many of them involve day-to-day management matters, including fiscal and employment decisions, but concerns include the district’s D rating by the state Department of Education.

Karmacharya, who came in the late spring of 2011, doesn’t believe she shies away from acknowledging the state of the district.

In looking at the district’s performance under her tenure, the first-time superintendent underlined that, out of the past four years for which performance labels have been released, the Brookhaven district has only been a C (or Successful) once. The other three years the district has been at the D level (or Academic Watch).

This trend, Karmacharya said, requires evaluation of how things have been done and a willingness to accept shake-ups.

“I’ve asked people to join with me and be willing to push, be willing to ask for excellence and not expect mediocrity and push beyond the status quo and be willing to take some risks and do some things differently,” she said.

Karmacharya called herself eager to partner with the community to face and change the district’s performance.

“Unless we are willing to fight together and grow together, we can’t make it and the district will continue to slide,” she said.

She also believes it’s important for parents and community members to understand how the labels are derived. She said the labels by themselves can be misleading without understanding the story of the data underneath the labels.

For example, in the 2011-12 school year, the McComb district was rated as a C district, Brookhaven as a D. However, Brookhaven schools had a higher Quality Distribution Index, one of the factors that controls how a label is awarded.

The QDI score represents how well students are scoring on standardized state tests; better student test scores mean a higher QDI number. Possible QDI scores range from 0 to 300.

In 2011-12, the C-rated McComb district had a QDI score of 139 while D-rated Brookhaven had a higher QDI score of 156.

The disparity in ranking comes because state rankings aren’t based on QDI alone. “Growth” is also significant.

Based on their performance on state tests, students are designated as minimal, basic, proficient, or advanced.

At least some students are expected to leave a given grade scoring at a higher level of academic performance than when they entered that grade.

Say, for example, 50 students enter the fifth grade designated as basic based on their scores from the previous school year’s standardized tests. Accountability standards expect that, after the fifth grade standardized tests are taken, some of those basic students will have improved and be at the proficient level.

A formula predicts the amount of growth a given district or school should see in the performance of its students on standardized tests.

Thus a QDI number can go up, but if it doesn’t go up enough, schools can see repercussions on their accountability labels.

Looking at Brookhaven’s recent record shows a little bit about how QDI (a district’s level of performance) and growth (rate of improvement) interact to produce a school district’s ranking.

In 2008, the state introduced the accountability model that’s still mostly in place. Under this model, Star was the highest possible label, followed by High Performing, Successful, Academic Watch, Low, Performing, At Risk of Failing and Failing.

Following the 2008-09 school year, with Lea Barrett as superintendent of Brookhaven schools, the district was rated at Academic Watch, the equivalent of a D under the current labels (the labels changed ahead of the 2011-12 school year but the underlying mechanism for determining those labels did not).

The district’s QDI was 150 in 2008-09, and the growth target was not met.

There was better news in the 2009-10 school year. Student performance during that year earned the district a Successful rating. The district improved its QDI to 159 and growth was met.

In the school year of 2010-11, test scores earned the district a rating of Academic Watch, the equivalent of a D. The QDI fell to 155 and the district did not meet growth.

The 2010-11 year was Barrett’s last in office. Barrett announced her resignation in August of that school year and was succeeded by Karmacharya, who formally began her job in March.

In 2011-12, Karmacharya’s first full year as superintendent, the district remained on Academic Watch, though this year the state rolled out its new A-F ranking system (both ranking labels were on the 2011-12 data released by the Department of Education. A became the equivalent of the Star label, B of High Performing, C of Successful, D of Academic Watch, and F of the previous bottom three labels).

The district QDI was 156, up one point from the year before but not back up to the 159 earned during the 2009-10 school year.

The small QDI increase was not enough, however, and the district did not meet its growth target. However, Karmacharya said the district missed growth by only 0.002 points. Had the district met growth, it would have been a C (or Successful) district even with its QDI of 156.

Karmacharya believes the switch in labels used in the state accountability model has had an impact on community perception of the school’s performance.

“Yes, I think it made a huge difference,” Karmacharya said. “I think it was a wakeup call for the entire state.”

Testing data and performance labels for the 2012-13 school year will be released sometime this summer.

Tests used by the district to predict performance on state tests show the district improving its QDI by about another point, up from 159 to 160.

“Everything we’ve seen is suggesting we’re going to see higher QDI,” Karmacharya said.

It’s incremental, but the superintendent said she remains encouraged by all signs of improvement and remains hopeful about what the final verdict of this school year will say.

“I do think it’s possible to meet growth,” she said. “It was so close last year.”