Rising stars: DiLullo sees gains in Star Ratings, but more improvement needed

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Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo told the Sun Rise on Tuesday that he was “feeling better” about the district’s progress after seeing the Rhode Island Department of Education’s 2019 accountability results and Star Ratings.

Seven institutions across Johnston either maintained the status quo or saw an improvement in their Star Rating. The system designates schools as being between one and five stars. It is based on a variety of metrics, including the results of the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System, or RICAS, as well as graduation and suspension rates and student and teacher absenteeism.

Twenty-two schools across Rhode Island earned the five-star designation, while 49 were rated as four-star schools. The majority of the state’s schools – 134 – received three stars. Fifty-nine schools were given two stars, while another 35 received a single star.

This is the second year RIDE has used the Star Rating system, which the agency says was “developed to bring increased transparency and accessibility to school performance data” under the terms of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

“I think the Star Ratings are a good indicator for the general population to kind of view to look at where the schools are,” DiLullo said during an interview in his office. “It gives you a synopsis of what a school is all about, however it doesn’t give you a deep look as to what is really happening in a school. You really do need to go visit a school to see what’s happening in a school, because there could be just one or two indicators that are causing that school to be at a one- or a two-star rating.”

Winsor Hill Elementary School ticked up to a three-star school, while Ferri Middle School was elevated from one to two stars. DiLullo said their improvements are largely due to improved RICAS scores.

“The RICAS test score was big,” DiLullo said regarding Ferri’s jump. “The number of students that didn’t do well, the classification of students that didn't do well was reduced because they had a general population of concern last year, this year it’s a special population concern.”

Brown Avenue Elementary School – for which DiLullo had just come back from accepting the Blue Ribbon Award in Washington, D.C. – remained the district’s best performer at four stars. Sarah Dyer Barnes and Thornton each stayed put at three stars, while Johnston High School maintained its two-star rating.

DiLullo said schools didn’t perform better because their populations of special education and English language learners, or ELLs, “weren’t making the same amount of progress as the typical student was.”

“We’re looking at those special needs populations because those are the areas that we really do need to focus on,” he said. “We need to make sure that we understand why they’re not performing as well as the typical student, and then provide the services or the support needed to help them move along.”

DiLullo said the district has enough staff to see more progress with special education students and ELLs, and it will take increased analysis of where students are coming up short to make gains.

“We have plenty of staff to work with those students,” DiLullo said. “We’ve hired a cadre of English language learner teachers. We’ve sent some of our classroom teachers to become EL teachers, we’ve supported their education to make that happen. It’s about really understanding and examining the test, where the students fell down on the test and then kind of ramping up the instruction to help them succeed in those areas.”

DiLullo presented the district’s RICAS results to the School Committee at its Nov. 12 meeting, and he said members were “pleased with the improvements.” It’s a cautious optimism, though, as he and the committee want to continue to see a steady climb in success.

The high school had difficulty reaching three-star status because of a metric called diploma plus, which DiLullo said measures the amount of students who go beyond the regular graduation requirements.

“So that can be enrollment in a higher education facility, it’s passing the AP test, it’s all of those things that would allow those students to enter college at an advanced level,” DiLullo said. “We have quite a few students doing that, but obviously not enough to push that metric to the point where they would be a three-star.”

DiLullo said that, while the Star Ratings provide a solid snapshot, there are some figures measured that he said don’t capture the whole scope. One example he provided was teacher absenteeism, and he provided an example of where a rate could become skewed using a hypothetical art teacher splitting time between Brown Avenue and Thornton.

“If that teacher is out sick at Brown Avenue School, let’s say three days, right,” DiLullo said. “And that three days constitutes a 10-percent absentee rate depending on when it happens throughout the course of the year. That teacher gets identified as being chronically absent because it’s only counted in that one school, when in fact they look at it as a half-time teacher as opposed to a full-time teacher because that teacher works for the district full-time. So that’s a bit unfair.”

For more information on the accountability results and Star Ratings, visit RIDE’s website, ride.ri.gov.

Daniel Kittredge contributed to this report..

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