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Glendale-River Hills president finds challenges, vindication in low-performers

District has highest gap-closing score

Oct. 8, 2013

Glendale — When it comes to disabled, economically disadvantaged and minority students, Glendale-River Hills School Board President Bob Roska sees a two-sided issue.

On one hand, students from those groups are typically lower performers and weigh heavily on the district when it is ranked against area districts by test scores; on the other hand, one of the district's biggest educational wins right now is its progress with those students, who are benefiting from an individualized approach to teaching.

Such was the case with the state Department of Public Instruction report cards issued in mid-September, which pegged Glendale-River Hills as the second lowest scoring district overall in the North Shore.

Frustrated with the district's ostensibly low performance in relation to other North Shore districts, Roska began digging through report card data. As difficult as it is to publicly discuss testing data, which, taken as a whole, is at times ambivalent to certain racial and demographic groups, it's worth it to demonstrate the good work going on at the district, Roska said.

"It sounds so defensive and almost racist to explain the mathematics," Roska said. "When you think about the term 'achievement gap,' that's a loaded thing."

What he found in the DPI data is that the students whose performance contributes to the "closing gaps" rating of the school report cards — nonwhite racial/ethnic groups, economically disadvantaged, English learners or students with disabilities — all improved their proficiency rate on standardized tests, contributing to a Glendale-River Hills gap-closing score of 76.5.

Of the six districts statewide with a black student population of 25 percent or more, Glendale- River Hills had the highest gap-closing score, Roska found. He also found that the gap-closing score is first among districts where white students are or nearly are a minority — Glendale-River Hills had a 55 percent white population — and was in the top 7 percent when districts were sorted by percentage of economically disadvantaged students. Glendale-River Hills was 29.3 percent disadvantaged in the 2012-13 school year and in the North Shore is second only to Brown Deer in terms of student diversity.

"I think that's a powerful message," Roska said, "not so much from a competitive point of view, but that we, at least by this year's measure, really are doing as good a job as anybody when dealing with higher numbers of low achievers."

Roska credits the improvement among low-achieving students to individual teaching techniques which were first implemented as part of the Response to Intervention model and later gained traction throughout the district. Though the method was criticized for focusing too much on low-achieving students and not enough on high-performers, Roska said, gifted and talented students have been receiving individual instruction as well.

"It works across the spectrum," Roska said. "We've seen it producing good results, coming out on a more expansive basis, and helping out."

So far as closing the achievement gap is concerned, Roska admits that Glendale-River Hills is unlikely to match the results of a district like Mequon-Thiensville, which has a comparatively small population of minority, disabled or economically disadvantaged students. At the same time, he sees potential in the progress the district has made.

"It's not so much a competitive thing, but it's more of a light at the end of the tunnel," Roska said. "That schools are doing something that's working and bringing about improvement."

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