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Report links discipline to test scores in W.Va.

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By Mackenzie Mays  
The Charleston Gazette  

The more that students in West Virginia are disciplined in school, the more likely they are to do poorly in academics, a new report shows.

“A growing body of research provides evidence of a link between school discipline practices — especially the use of suspensions — with lower academic achievement,” Andy Whisman, assistant director of research and evaluation for the West Virginia Department of Education, told state school board members last week.

As discipline referrals increase in West Virginia schools, so do the odds of poor standardized test scores, and students are even more at risk of low achievement when they are given some form of out-of-class punishment, according to the report prepared by department’s office of research.

More than 60 percent of documented school disciplinary action in West Virginia forces students out of class, even though the majority of all cases are classified as “minimally disruptive behavior,” meaning students did not pose a danger to themselves or others. Some students were even expelled for minimally disruptive behavior, according to the report.

Students who had at least one disciplinary referral were 40 percent less likely to hit proficient marks in math on the WESTEST than students who had not gotten into trouble, according to the report, which focused on students in grades 3 through 11 during the 2012-13 academic year.

Whisman recommended that education officials implement more positive discipline approaches and offer alternatives to suspension, as well as investigate what’s causing disparities between white and black students and other subgroups.

Nearly 30 percent of the public school students in West Virginia who are required to take standardized tests — about 63,000 students — have been written up for some sort of inappropriate behavior. About 12 percent of those only had one referral, while more than 6 percent had five or more.

According to the report, black students are more likely to be disciplined — and twice as likely to be suspended. All other race-based numbers in the discipline data were comparable to their representation in the student population.

Even though only about 5 percent of students in the state are black, black students make up an 8 percent chunk of students who have been disciplined.

State School Board President Gayle Manchin said she has been pushing for more prevention and recovery programs for minority students at the middle-school level.

“I’m not excusing teachers — nationally, with the police, there seems to be the profiling of these individuals that is certainly unnecessary. I think our teachers need to certainly have more — I hate to use the word ‘tolerance’ — but they should be fair with all their students, and all students should be treated equally,” Manchin said. “I do think, many times, our expectations for those students are different than our other students, and that’s what we need to change, both in the teachers’ minds and the students’ minds. Many of these students come to school with the attitude of, ‘I can’t do it’ and think they’re probably going to drop out.”

A disproportionate number of students with disabilities also are disciplined. About 15 percent of the student population qualifies as having a disability; students with disabilities make up about 18 percent of all discipline records.

Manchin said what concerns her most is the students who have been disciplined several times but still achieved proficient levels on standardized tests.

“What that tells me is that you’ve got smart kids in school, but they’re not being engaged and become disruptive. This whole business of engaging students in learning is very important and plays a very strong part in kids’ behavior. Certainly, sending a kid out of school is not productive for anybody,” she said. “The results aren’t shocking, that the more a student misbehaves, the less proficient they are in school. That’s not rocket science. But you have to change the climate of the entire school. A lot of these students come from very dysfunctional homes and they don’t know what being polite means, and being respectful isn’t part of their culture.”

Some school officials, though, voiced concerns that this isn’t an easy thing to fix, pointing out that different school administrators have different opinions on what should constitute a suspension and what shouldn’t.

Another issue is having the funding and the resources to support alternative punishments, said Robin Rector, school board president in Kanawha County — the state’s largest district.

“If we had our way, we would have adults that could monitor in-school suspensions. At least then we’d know there’s still some work being done. But it’s a resource issue,” Rector said. “Some schools do a good job of figuring out a way to make that happen, but there are ramifications if a child is suspended.”

Whisman also warned that the numbers are probably higher because of under-reporting. At least 30 schools across the state reported zero discipline issues.

“As most expect, increased incidents of discipline impact academics,” said Clayton Burch, an associate superintendent with the state Department of Education’s Division of Teaching and Learning. “This type of data is important because it opens the dialogue about targeting healthy school habits and classroom behavior early, to ensure each child’s potential.”