Does more K-12 funding get you better results? It depends, N.D. educators say
With 77 percent of total students proficient in reading, the district had the highest rate among similar-sized districts in North Dakota and also spent the most — $10,971 per student.
Whether there’s a correlation between the two is something researchers have been studying for years, Superintendent Larry Nybladh said. But in his opinion, the way districts use those resources is the most important.
For comparison, West Fargo had the lowest spending among the larger school districts at $8,714 per student.
Schools can control the quality of teachers in the classroom, and one goal of his district is to attract and retain the most effective ones, Nybladh said.
“I think where we try to affect the most change is student achievement, and I think our level of spending is appropriate,” he said.
In a recent comparison by the Herald, five districts — Grand Forks, Bismarck, Minot, Fargo and West Fargo — didn’t differ much across several metrics, including test scores, per-student spending and average student-teacher ratio. In this small snapshot, no significant patterns emerged between districts except the distinct challenges each one faces.
Superintendents in the five districts said they feel the best possible education is being provided and progress continues to be made in their districts.
“It’s hard to directly correlate things,” Nybladh said. “In terms of making progress academically, we really have to compare ourselves over time, and what we really want to compare is individual student growth progress.”
The Herald compared districts on the most recent per-student spending, graduation rates, test scores and average student-to-teacher ratio. All data was taken from the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.
When comparing graduation rates and test scores, the Herald examined results only for the total student body, low-income students and special education students, as these represent the largest three cohorts in each district.
Test scores for English language learners or minorities were not included in these stories for North Dakota or Minnesota. Although they’re a growing presence in some districts, including Grand Forks, the number of these students in each district varied too much among districts for a fair comparison. For instance, the number of English Language Learner students tested in math last year in Bismarck was 65, while in West Fargo that number was 405.
But these students still play a large role in a district’s overall test scores, as ELL and special education student scores tend to drive down results, Nybladh said.
Data on low-income students is an important indicator. Research shows there’s some correlation between poverty and decreased academic success because students who live in challenging conditions might struggle more to concentrate during school, be less likely to attend college or stay motivated.
Grand Forks has held the highest percentage of low-income students, defined by the number of students who qualify for free and reduced meals.
Although there was little variation in test scores across the districts, superintendents said several factors affect the results.
Of the five districts, Grand Forks stood out for having the highest percentage of low-income students — 36 percent last year — yet the highest reading score.
For years, the district has worked hard at catching students at risk of failing reading and get them up to speed by third grade, Assistant Superintendent Jody Thompson said. Research has shown students who aren’t proficient by fourth grade have a higher risk of dropping out of high school.
“I think we do an excellent job of early identification,” he said.
Like all school administrators reached for this story, Thompson and Nybladh talked in detail about the remedial programs they offer students, their district’s strategic plans that include improving test scores and their goal to continuously push for student achievement at the highest levels.
Teachers play a big role in fulfilling this goal, and that’s why his district has made it a priority to attract and retain highly effective teachers, Nybladh said.
In Minot, the district had the lowest math scores and average reading scores that year. But it was an extremely challenging time for students as they grappled with the aftermath of a devastating flood, sitting in churches or portable classrooms to learn, Superintendent Mark Vollmer said.
Test scores didn’t significantly drop, and he attributes much of that to the resiliency of teachers, who would teach all day and then work on their own flooded homes until 1 or 2 a.m., he said.
“We didn’t see all the discipline problems, emotional problems that you’d expect because everybody wanted to make that school experience the best it could be,” he said.
In Bismarck, which has the most populous district in the state, students met or exceeded the state average. Students there happen to move several times a year, though not for any specific reason, which causes varied attendance levels and disrupts learning in students, wrote Superintendent Tamara Uselman in an email.
Mobility, personal motivation and a multitude of other reasons can cause a student to succeed or fail on a state test, which is why her district and others use a battery of tests to measure progress, she wrote.
“A single test on a single day provides a single snapshot of data — nothing more, nothing less,” she wrote.
Graduation rates across districts exceeded the state average of 87 percent, with the exception of Fargo, which reported 82 percent.
Educators and college officials keep a close eye on those rates as well as the remedial coursework students need in college, among many others.
Last year, the North Dakota Statewide Longitudinal Data System created a study that followed remedial coursework enrollment from 2008 to 2013, what high school students attended and what percentage of coursework was needed based on institution.
The report is the first public one for North Dakota, but each state was required to produce the information to receive federal funding, according to Tracy Korsmo, program manager at SLDS.
Data from schools and the North Dakota University System showed higher numbers of students who attended community or regional colleges required remedial classes, while fewer required it at research universities, namely UND and North Dakota State University.
The report also followed the percentage of 2010 graduates who enrolled in college within 16 months. The highest number of enrollees was in Fargo with 81 percent, while Bismarck, Minot and West Fargo had 67 percent. In Grand Forks, 77 percent of grads enrolled that year.
Several superintendents said their goal was to improve graduation rates, and many talked about the wealth of remedial programs available to students in their districts. In Grand Forks, there are high school intervention classes available for at-risk students, Thompson said.
“Maybe those rates are reflective of that,” he said.
Analyses like these have their limits.
Researchers say it’s hard to quantify the effect that personal motivation, a student’s home life or parent’s education level has on a student’s academic achievement. Comparing national averages, for instance, can even be misleading because average scores might be weighted differently one year from the next, they say.
Some districts in North Dakota have a growing number of special education students or English Language Learners, who often are considered low-income and face language barriers, said West Fargo Superintendent David Flowers in an email.
State and federal funding doesn’t provide enough to meet the needs of these students, but districts must still provide services to help them meet proficiency on tests, he and other superintendents said. Larger districts also receive higher amounts of special education students, for instance, because they have more resources than smaller schools, he said.
Enrollment at districts across the state is growing as well, but districts only receive extra funding to compensate for that growth if they reach a certain threshold, he said.
“Each district serves a unique community, and there will inevitably be variance among the districts,” he said.
Parents and school board members reached for this story said that while there’s always room for improvement, they feel their children are getting a great education.
“Our district does a great job identifying barriers and thinking outside the box to help our students reach their maximum potential,” Grand Forks School Board member Rebecca Grandstrand said.
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