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Rising Hamilton public school grad rate, test scores called ‘cause for celebration’

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

A 15 per cent jump in the graduation rate and mostly upward trends on provincial test scores are being hailed as signs the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board’s efforts to improve student success are on the right track.

While some of the news is “very depressing,” in one trustee’s words, an annual staff report on student achievement shows 83 per cent of high schoolers graduated in 2011 – a figure boosted by including those who took a fifth year, or “victory lap,” to do so.

That’s 11 percentage points higher than in 2010, when the rate was 72 per cent and only included those graduating in four years, and eclipsed the provincial average of 82 per cent.

The reports also highlights steady improvement on most provincial reading, writing and math tests at both the elementary and secondary levels, even if students continue to lag behind the Ontario average in meeting the expected standard.

Two notable exceptions were the Grade 9 academic math and Grade 10 literacy tests, where results have worsened in recent years and a two-percentage-point gap between the provincial average has widened to seven percentage points on both.

“There is some cause for celebration and yet we can’t be complacent because there’s way more work to do,” education director John Malloy said during a presentation to trustees.

“Statistically we are seeing trajectories that would suggest that if we continue with the focus and the road that we’re on we are going to see improvements and those improvements will take us to the provincial standard.”

Malloy said he expects literacy strategies for students in kindergarten to Grade 2 and Grade 6 to pay off on the test scores as students move up through the grades.

But he said the board may also have to stop giving all schools the same resources and provide more help to those struggling to get students to the provincial standard.

“Right now we still are providing a certain support to all and then with the little that’s left we provide focused support,” Malloy said. “In order for us to get to a place where all of our kids are at standard, I’m suggesting we’re going to have to shift that expectation.”

Judith Bishop, trustee for ward 1 and 2, called the higher graduation rate “absolutely fantastic” and said she’s also encouraged by improvement in the number of Grade 9 and 10 students who are passing all their courses.

Eighty per cent of Grade 9s obtained all eight credits and two-thirds of Grade 10s accumulated 16 credits – a jump of about six percentage points over the past five years.

“I can remember when those numbers were really quite frightening,” said Bishop, who expressed concern about scores on the Grade 10 literacy test.

Only 77 per cent passed the test last year – down from 83 per cent in 2008-09 – compared to 84 per cent provincially, a result she called “very, very depressing.”

Peter Joshua, superintendent of leadership and learning, said the board is trying to improve results with a number of initiatives.

These include having Grade 9 and 10 teachers work with teachers at feeder schools to identify problem areas, trying to create “optimal writing conditions” for the test and providing “assistive technology and support for students with special needs,” he said.

“We are concerned about that trend as well,” Joshua said.

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