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William Marvel: The False Front

During the budget committee meetings we heard a lot of statistics that we may hear again at tomorrow night’s annual school meeting. For instance, on Jan. 23 the Kennett High principal offered a rapid-fire list of Kennett’s credits that he has been repeating a lot lately. Most of them did not check out.
As I have noted elsewhere, he said that Kennett’s dropout rate was near zero. That, however, means virtually nothing. Since the new law kicked in, forcing school attendance until age 18, it’s a rare student who is old enough to drop out before the last few months of high school, by which time it seems ridiculous to do so. Two years ago, 11 of New Hampshire’s 78 high schools had already achieved a dropout rate of zero, and 33 schools had three or fewer dropouts.
The principal also told us that “Kennett High School has the lowest cost per student from the Lakes Region to the Canadian border.” Unfortunately, that statement was not true. Kennett’s per-student cost was last calculated at $13,241, while Groveton, in Coos County, spent only $12,111 per student.
Moreover, Groveton’s student-achievement percentages are much higher than Kennett’s, and they perform so well despite worse poverty, a staff that is proportionately smaller, and a more disadvantageous economy of scale. At Groveton, 79 percent of 11th graders were proficient or better in reading, 46 percent in math, and 46 percent in writing; the corresponding percentages at Kennett were only 72, 36, and 37. The Conway school district employs one staff member for every 5.6 students, while Groveton’s Northumberland School District only employs one for every 6.4.
I think I heard Kennett High credited with providing the “best bang for the buck.” That wasn’t true, either. By any measure, Groveton High School — not Kennett — gives the “best bang for the buck” between the Lakes Region and the Canadian border.
In looking over northcountry schools, I devised a means of gauging cost versus performance. After each year’s NECAP tests, the state tallies the percentage of students in each grade who achieve proficiency in reading and math, with writing tested at grades 5, 8, and 11. Adding the proportions of juniors in a given high school who make the grade in those three categories, and dividing that by three, reveals the average proportion of student proficiency for that school. Dividing that number into the cost per student yields a dollar value for each percentage point: the lower the value, the better “bang for the buck.”
Kennett’s three proficiency ratings — 72, 36, and 37 — average out to 48.333 percent overall proficiency. Divide that into per-student expenditures ($13,241.06), and the cost for each percentage point of academic proficiency at Kennett High School is $299.21.
The same figure at Groveton High School, meanwhile, is only $212.48, based on an impressive average proficiency of 57 percent. By this cost-for-performance formula, equivalent proficiency at Kennett costs 41 percent more than at Groveton. Kennett is also beaten by Hanover High School ($243.38), Lisbon ($271.48), Gorham ($280.22), White Mountain Regional ($283.20), and Profile ($286.65).
Taking that same process district-wide, and averaging NECAP results from grades three through 11, I found that the most efficient K-12 school district in the northern part of the state is Lisbon, with a cost of $182.50 for each percentage point of average proficiency. White Mountain Regional comes in next, at $188.01. Both those districts suffer from significantly higher proportions of students poor enough to be eligible for free-and-reduced lunches, yet Conway pays $201.20 for each percentage point.
Our school officials continually smother us in flattering — albeit often false — statistics and statements, and take credit for accomplishments for which they were not really responsible. What they withhold from us, and hate for anyone else to point out, is where we have failed, but that is at least as important to know. Despite all the claims to the contrary, we remain overpriced and mediocre even among the more economically and geographically disadvantaged districts north of us.
The disproportionate infusion of money, staff, and especially administration in the Conway School District has not brought proportionate results. Holding administrators and the school board accountable should be more effective, and that was my purpose in recommending a slight reduction in staff and administration from the enormous school district budget. If voters will sustain that thinking tomorrow night, perhaps our school board will finally feel obliged to leave off the cheerleading and show some leadership in performance efficiency.

William Marvel lives in South Conway.
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