This story has been updated to include comments from Whitewater and Palmyra-Eagle district administrators. 

School districts in Jefferson County received good grades on their annual Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction report cards, with eight either meeting or exceeding expectations in their 2018-19 rating.

The School District of Fort Atkinson, School District of Jefferson, Lake Mills Area School District and Whitewater Unified School District all received scores exceeding expectations for the school year. The Johnson Creek School District, Waterloo School District, Watertown Unified School District and Palmyra-Eagle Area School District all met expectations for the year.

Report card ratings range from five stars, denoting schools and districts that significantly exceed expectations, to one star for those that fail to meet expectations.

Scores are calculated in four priority areas: student achievement; school growth; closing gaps between student groups; and measures of students being on-track for postsecondary readiness, which includes graduation and attendance rates, third-grade English language arts achievement, and eighth-grade mathematics achievement. Report cards provide a snapshot of performance across the four priority areas and can be used to target improvement efforts.

For 2018-19 report cards, 40 districts in the state were rated at the highest accountability level, a five-star rating, meaning they significantly exceed expectations. Forming the largest group are 198 districts achieving four stars for exceeding expectations. The three-star, meets expectations, rating was given to 163 districts. Seventeen districts were rated two stars, meets few expectations. One district failed to meet expectations, the one-star category.

No districts were rated using the alternate accountability measures this year.

For the past year, 2,112 public schools and 322 private choice schools received report cards. Of choice schools, 106 exercised the option to receive an all-student report card in addition to the required report card for choice students only.

Leading the way in Jefferson County was the Lake Mills Area School District with a score of 80.5 — an increase of almost two points from 2017-18. This score put the district just 2.5 points away from joining the highest category of significantly exceeding expectations.

Lake Mills District Administrator Pam Streich said she is very pleased with the score.

“While we acknowledge the school report card system is complex and just one tool in looking at our work with students, we are very pleased that we have achieved ‘exceeds expectations’ in each building and as a district. This designation reflects the positive work in each of the buildings. Congratulations to all of our staff and students on this accomplishment.”

Streich said the report card looks heavily at how subgroups like English language learners, low socio-economic students and students with disabilities achieve.

“We always strive to improve programming for all students. We incorporate all the data we can collect into our planning for that improvement,” she said.

The School District of Jefferson moved into the exceeds expectations category with a score of 74.3 after meeting expectations in the 2017-18 school year.

Jefferson’s score improved across all four priority areas, which Director of Curriculum and Instruction Barbara Johnson said was due to the hard work each level has put in to assess what needs to be done to improve.

“That process has really benefited us over time,” Johnson said. “I’m very happy, ecstatic with the work of staff … especially in closing gaps and growth.”

While Johnson said she’s looking for the district to continue to get better at overall student achievement, the district administration and leadership are very happy with the results.

“Student achievement overall is an area I continue to watch and wonder what we can do for all,” Johnson said. “I’m so proud. I went to my district administrator, I high-fived him and said ‘we are exceeding expectations again.’ We just whooped and hollered. I think we, as a team, have something special here, just like the Packers.”

While Fort Atkinson remained in the exceeds expectations category, it did lose some ground year to year. After earning a score of 74.2 in 2017-18, the district dropped to 73.1.

Although Fort Atkinson still scored above the state average in all four priority areas, it lost points in two of the areas: student achievement, which is calculated using student scores in English and math, and district growth, which measures how student scores improved.

School District of Fort Atkinson Interim District Administrator Rob Abbott said that while he’s happy to remain in the exceeds expectations category, the district always is working to improve individual student growth.

“I think we take a lot of pride in the hard work and dedication our teachers and staff exhibit each and every day. I’m pleased to see the district once again is exceeding expectations,” Abbot said. “Trust me when I say we don’t take it for granted. But for us, the school report card is based on data that is six to eight months old. We’ve been working nonstop since July to form really strong school-improvement plans.”

While the top line report card number is what ultimately represents the district, Abbott said, the data behind that number is what the district uses to get “improved teaching and learning.”

“There’s a definite effort by the state for districts to show individual growth for students, moving each student on their own personal growth trajectory,” Abbott said. “That’s exactly what we’re trying to do, look at individual students and what it is that will help them get that traction and improve learning.”

While the Whitewater Unified School District received just a 0.7-point bump from 2017-18, the district moved up a category after receiving a score of 73 — pushing it into exceeds expectations for the first time.

The district moved up largely because of a four-point increase in the closing gaps category.

“As a district, we were very happy to see our report card scores, but we will always continue to expect further improvement in teaching and learning,” District Director of Instruction Kelly Seichter said in a statement. “These report cards cannot measure all of the important work that happens in our schools and district. We pair any conversations about our state report cards with additional data and stories that tell a fuller picture of opportunities and performance.”

Seichter said while these numbers don't mean everything, it's nice to not have to worry about them and focus on the hard work of teaching. 

"We take it with a grain of salt but it's nice to be into that higher rating," Seichter said. "Our kids are more than just scores on a report card rating from the state." 

The Watertown Unified School District was in the meets expectations category, but it had the biggest point increase from 2017-18 — with its score jumping 3.6 points from 67.3 to 70.9.

This change was mostly due to a 9.6-point jump in its district growth score, which shows how rapidly students are gaining knowledge and skills from year to year, focusing on the pace of improvement in students’ performance for English language arts and math, from 56.5 to 66.1.

“The district as a whole really invested to address literacy and the push by the staff, teachers and literacy coaches to improve in this area paid off,” Watertown Superintendent Cassandra Schug said. “I’m really, really proud of the workers, teachers and literacy coaches ...There’s always still work to be done, but we still have a strong team. We have teachers who show they are willing to do whatever it takes for students. I am really excited for the future.”

The Waterloo School District’s score increased slightly from 71.3 to 71.4 — keeping it in the meets expectations category. The district went up four points in the closing gaps category.

The Johnson Creek School District’s score moved up one point to 71.1, leaving it solidly in the meets expectations category. But, the district did get a large boost in the closing gaps priority area. The district score jumped from 73.8 in 2017-18 to 79.5 in 2018-19.

As it faces the looming prospect of dissolution, the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District dropped 2.5 points from 73.2 to 70.7. This drop means the district was moved out of the exceeds expectations category. The largest drops in the priority areas came in district growth and closing gaps.

Palmyra-Eagle saw a 12-point drop in its district growth score and an 18-point drop in its closing gaps score.

Palmyra-Eagle District Administrator Steve Bloom said the district was able to maintain meets expectations because his staff continues to work as hard as possible to help students learn — especially when it comes to factors such as standardized testing. 

"Obviously testing will take place after the decision is made by the boundary appeals board," Bloom said. "Our staff will do everything they can to create positive testing environments."

Administrators from Waterloo and Johnson Creek did not respond to requests for comment by presstime.

Logan Hanson and Sarah Weihert contributed toward this report.

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