School Board reviews district needs assessment

Friday, January 18, 2019

Alta-Aurelia Community School District’s annual District Needs Assessment showed the board that their district may be more similar than it is different from other schools in Iowa—even with sharp disagreements on some statements fielded to staff, parents and students.

“When you look at it deeper, we need to impress on all people that students can learn, at all levels with proper accommodation,” Superintendent Lynn Evans said.

“You’re very similar, and that’s not surprising, because we’ve been playing off the same sheet of music in our state for a very long time with assessments and standards here,” said the IASB’s Tony VanderZyl, presenting his survey’s analysis.

While survey results showed that an equal 65 percent of staff, parents and students all currently agreed that students are meeting expectations, they diverged on whether that level of performance is the best that they can expect students to achieve.

About 50 percent of parents agreed that the current level of student achievement is “what we can expect,” versus the school board and staff’s 56 percent agreement with that statement.

But is Alta-Aurelia making excuses for student achievement levels? Sixty-nine percent of the board and staff said no, but less than half of parents and community members (34 percent) said the same thing as staff.

“People in high performing schools always think they can get better,” said VanderZyl, highlighting the importance of these questions. The characteristics shared by high performing schools include ambitious goals, a lack of excuses for performance and a shared understanding of the goals the district is trying to achieve.

Only half of parents surveyed said they believed there was a shared understanding of what A-A is trying to improve.

Of 310 parents and students surveyed—representing the majority of survey participants, 52 percent said that A-A has “effective leadership teams.” An even smaller 38 percent believed they have a voice in decision making.

Those responses differed from board and staff responses by 20 to 40 points in the agreement column, though all participants were roughly equal in their understanding of how much local school boards can impact the system to improve student achievement.

Similarly, dissent between faculty and parents showed disparity between administrative standards and what parents understand are happening.

Of parents, less than half (42 percent) agreed that the rigor and content of the Iowa Core/Common Core Standards were being fully implemented in the school district. Board and staff agreed with that statement at 69 percent—a 27 percent gap.

Evans said communication of the district’s research-based practices in the schools should be better communicated to stakeholders.

“Parents aren’t so sure we’re doing it,” he said, reading the survey data.

“Common Core standards are the best thing to hit this country and state in decades,” said VanderZyl. “Because finally we have comprehensive, rigorous standards on what students are supposed to know and do at each grade level.”

He said that will be complemented even more with new Iowa state assessments being introduced this spring.

But the good news is that the vast majority of staff and parents—93 and 94 percent, respectively—agree on the stake that parents and the community play in improving student learning.

Furthermore, three-quarters of parents agreed that they are kept informed on the progress of their children.

Both of those items are pillars for high-performing schools, said VanderZyl.

Overall, he says Alta-Aurelia’s strength’s are agreement between stakeholders that the school’s standards are rigorous, that parents must be partners in education and that there is strong leadership that positively influences student performance.

Improvement recommendations include increasing expectations for student achievement with staff and parents, understanding the importance of more emphasis on Iowa Core standards and ensuring that all concerned parties understand they have a voice in decision making.

Recommendations often include items such as ensuring teachers are focused on Common Core and Iowa Core standards, as well as ensuring local assessments fill in gaps for what VanderZyl said have been historically weak state assessments in Iowa for decades.

The assessment, previously conducted internally, has been given to the Iowa Associations of School Boards to eliminate bias in conducting the study.

The data will be used in conjunction with student achievement data and other data points to develop school improvement plans for next year.

The full results of the survey will be posted on the school’s website for the public.