By Pat LaFleur,
FortThomasMatters.com City Beat
Last week, I reported on HHS’s surprising absence from the most recent US News & World Report rankings of public high schools across the U.S. Broadly, the rankings evaluated a public high school’s success at meeting its state’s proficiency standards and college preparedness goals.
In an email last week to Superintendent Gene Kirchner, U.S. News & World Report explained that HHS was left out of the rankings because it “fell very slightly short” of the first criterion for ranking, which – among other factors – measured the number of “economically disadvantaged” (also referred to as “free and reduced lunch”) students who scored proficient or above in core curriculum testing.
Upon corresponding with Mr. Kirchner, I deduced that this suggested a deficiency in the performance of HHS to ensure the success of its free/reduced lunch (FRL) population.
But after further investigation and continued correspondence with Mr. Kirchner and HHS Principal Brian Robinson, it’s become clear that my inference was shortsighted.
First, I asked Mr. Robinson to explain further why HHS was left out of these rankings when just last year it ranked 5th in the same report. These rankings are based on data from the 2010-11 school year. This is significant because, as Mr. Robinson explained, US News & World Report drew state proficiency numbers for KY (among other factors) from a particular statewide testing circuit known as KCCT, a test for which – acc. to Mr. Robinson – KY did not hold HHS and other schools accountable in its internal accountability measurements. To boot, KCCT was also scheduled for discontinuation after the 2010-11 school year.
Mr. Robinson made clear that KCCT was a valuable tool for measuring HHS’s overall success, and he regrets that the 2010-11 scores among HHS free/reduced lunch students were slightly lower than their typical levels. However, he asserted, he is proud of how HHS geared its focus toward FRL students that year… and, in reality, every year.
Numbers Don’t Lie
While discussing this issue, it was clear that the Principal has a sophisticated understanding of the stakes. I presented him with a common criticism of such accountability standards: that it’s unfair and unrealistic to hold the same expectations for economically disadvantaged students as for the majority of the population.
In response, Mr. Robinson explained that, while it’s hard to argue that barriers to education aren’t greater for these students, it’s crucial to “address the barriers and [at the same time] not promote them as an excuse.”
“We have to find ways to provide opportunities for all students, regardless of economic category,” Principal Robinson continued. HHS – and, presumably Ft. Thomas Independent Schools at large – has operated on an “equal access” strategy toward this effect, and has done so for quite some time.
This strategy includes financial support systems that allow engagement from students who might not be able to afford the fees necessary to participate in athletic and academic extracurricular programs, as well as an open enrollment and fee subsidization policy for AP coursework offered to students with socioeconomic disadvantage.
AP testing is an especially useful metric for this because it indicates how many students will leave high school already having earned college credit. From this standpoint, HHS’s strategy gets results: in the last decade alone, HHS saw a spike from 198 AP exams administered in 2004 to roughly 900 this past semester.
State testing numbers also show above average achievement among HHS FRL students. Analyzing data from the KY Dept. of Ed. School Report Card database, in the 2011-12 school year, HHS FRL students outperformed statewide scoring levels by an average of 29.5 percentage points. The most drastic area in which HHS FRL students exceeded the state average was Algebra II (a 36% difference), and the highest percentage of proficiency or above among FRL students was achieved in English II (74%). For a full breakdown, click here.
It’s no secret that Fort Thomas is a community that holds itself to high expectations, and Mr. Robinson has this in mind. “The greatest gift you can give any student is to have high expectations, and then provide opportunities to meet those expectations,” he said, having little doubt that we should see HHS back in US News & World Report rankings next year.
With numbers like these, I’m inclined to believe him.