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Lincoln Public Schools — and state — adjusting to new, more rigorous tests

Lincoln Public Schools students’ performance on state tests dropped this year, in part because of ongoing changes to the tests themselves and the higher expectations that go along with them, state and local officials said. 

Two of the biggest changes — and the biggest drops in scores — are in the English Language Arts tests for third- through eighth-graders and the ACT test now given to 11th-graders instead of the state tests. Because the tests are so different, state and local officials say, they’re not comparable to past years.

Still, just more than half of LPS’ juniors are considered “on track” to succeed in college or are meeting benchmarks set by the ACT: 54 percent in English Language Arts, 53 percent in math and 56 percent in science. LPS outpaces state averages in all three subjects.

Some state senators and groups such as Educate Nebraska, which promote school choice, have been critical of the state scores and say education officials must “adopt meaningful and proven policies” that put students first.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said the downward trend happens in all states when new tests are introduced, and he expects state and local district scores to rise.

The ACT, for instance, measures how prepared students are for college or the workforce and that’s a significantly higher bar than the old proficiency measures, Blomstedt said. It’s not that kids are performing worse, it's that the expectations are higher.

“We asked a lot of kids to jump over a 5-foot bar and we raised it to 5-7,” he said.

High school juniors are considered proficient if they’re “on track” to succeed in two- or four-year colleges without remedial courses. That generally requires a minimum ACT score of 18. The ACT’s even more stringent "benchmarks" — minimum scores of 20 to 23 by subject — indicate students are likely to get at least a B in a freshman college course.

To put that in context: A perfect ACT score is 36, though very few students ace all four subject areas. LPS’ average composite ACT score (a combination of all four subject areas) was 20.4, compared with 21.4 for the state and 21 nationally. The University of Nebraska requires a minimum score of 20.

Last year, Nebraska high school proficiency rates on standardized tests ranged from 60 to 71 percent in reading, writing, math and science.

Juniors have always performed more poorly on state tests than their younger peers, and education officials have long thought one of the reasons is that the tests don’t impact them directly. Officials hoped that would change with the ACT, because it's necessary for college admittance and scholarships.

LPS, which has offered the ACT to all juniors for six years, began giving a practice ACT test to all sophomores and juniors this year to help prepare them. Jane Stavem, associate superintendent of instruction, said she thinks that will be helpful, and district officials will continue to look at whether they need to adjust courses.

“The point is, we’re always looking and always adjusting,” she said.

Leslie Eastman, LPS director of assessment and evaluation, said the Nebraska and LPS scores compare well nationally, and students still have a full year to prepare after they take the ACT as juniors.

New English Language Arts tests for third- through eighth-grade students also “raised the bar,” and resulted in a significant drop in scores from last year.

Overall, 57 percent of LPS students were proficient on the new English Language Arts tests, compared with 51 percent statewide, both significant drops from reading and writing proficiency levels last year.

For instance, previous LPS reading proficiency levels ranged from 71 to 88 percent, but the expectations went up significantly on this test.

Eastman said other district assessments and standardized tests show students’ reading levels didn’t change.

New state standards are more rigorous, and the test requires more analytical thinking and uses different computer skills, Eastman said.

Tests for older students also include a writing portion. All of that makes a difference, as does the fact that it’s a longer test, she said.

Stavem said LPS officials expected a drop in scores, but were surprised by how much they dropped because it doesn't match other measures the district uses.  

In math, LPS proficiency dipped in third through eighth grade — ranging from 67 percent to 82 percent — and all but six elementary and middle schools saw dips in proficiency rates. Like other subjects, LPS outpaced the state average.

In LPS, science proficiency in fifth grade dropped 1 percentage point (to 71 percent) and remained unchanged (69 percent) in eighth grade. More than half the schools saw science scores rise or stay the same as last year.

State education officials have been warning about the anticipated drop in the English Language Arts scores, but say it's part of a process. 

Next year, the state will use a new company to design the tests, and new math standards will go into effect. Science standards will change in 2021. Ultimately, Blomstedt said, more-rigorous tests in early grades will help students be prepared for college or a career.

“It will start to build on all subject areas,” he said. “It’s really like we’re reinventing that whole process.”

That’s challenging for districts, Stavem said, because it’s hard to gauge the results and it takes time to make sure how and what they’re teaching is in line with the state tests, she said.

Nor does LPS want to spend too much time preparing students to take the tests, she said.

"We’re not opposed to more rigor and changing test items to reflect what students need to know to be career- and college-ready,” she said. “When state tests change, we need to adapt what we do, to do well on assessments and inform what we do in class.”

Would Trump really pay more under the tax bill? Not likely

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump keeps telling voters that he stands to pay more under the Republican tax legislation. But the evidence suggests otherwise.

Details of the House and Senate tax bills show that an extremely wealthy elite — including the president, his family, many in his Cabinet and members of his golf resorts — would enjoy a bonanza of lavish tax cuts unavailable to the vast majority of taxpayers.

Trump's businesses would likely face lower rates. He'd pay lower personal income rates. He could avoid the alternative minimum tax, which is designed to ensure that rich households that receive many breaks and deductions pay at least some tax. And his heirs could possibly avoid the estate tax entirely.

It's an awkward reality for a president who pledged to rebuild the U.S. economy for the forgotten men and women in industrial cities and towns. Yet Trump portrays the tax overhaul as cracking down on millionaires and billionaires because it's intended to limit itemized deductions for state and local taxes and mortgage interest payments, among other changes.

"We're also going to eliminate tax breaks and complex loopholes taken advantage of by the wealthy," he said in a speech Wednesday in Missouri. "I think my accountants are going crazy right now. It's all right. Hey, look, I'm president. I don't care. I don't care anymore. I don't care. Some of my wealthy friends care. Me? I don't care. This is a higher calling."

It's possible that Trump and other ultra-wealthy taxpayers could lose certain itemized deductions under the legislation. But those losses would almost surely be dwarfed by the benefits they would enjoy.

It's hard to say precisely how much the president would profit from the proposed changes. The legislation remains in a state of flux, and some provisions are slated to expire. Also, the president broke decades of tradition by refusing as a candidate and president to release his personal tax returns, so there is no baseline of comparison. But Trump would clearly be defying the odds if he were to face a tax increase.

When the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center reviewed an early version of the Senate tax bill, it found that the proposed changes would steadily favor the top 0.1 percent of earners with incomes above $5 million. Nearly 71 percent of this group would get a tax cut in 2019 and 2025; that figure would climb to 98.1 percent by 2027.

The average tax cut for this group in 2027 would be $223,970 — roughly four times the current median U.S. household income.

So, how exactly would Trump benefit?

Lower tax on business profits

At least temporarily, the Senate bill would slash the tax paid by companies with profits that double as the owner's personal income. These are known as "pass-through" companies. Trump controls about 500 such entities, according to his lawyers. These companies collectively make up the Trump Organization. Instead of paying at a top rate of 39.6 percent, Trump would likely be taxed on these profits at closer to 30 percent.

Alternative minimum tax

Based on leaked pages of Trump's 2005 taxes, this single catchall accounted for much of his tax burden that year. Under the Republican legislation, the alternative minimum tax would disappear, at least for several years.

In 2005, without the AMT, Trump would have paid just $7 million in federal income and self-employment tax on $153 million in income — a rate of under 5 percent. The AMT added $31 million to Trump's bill, leaving him with an effective tax rate of 25 percent.

Lower income tax rates

Instead of paying a top rate of 39.6 percent on his personal income, Trump would be charged at 38.5 percent in the Senate bill. This is a seemingly modest but likely bountiful tax cut if Trump continues to earn more than $100 million annually.

Estate tax

The House bill would permanently repeal the estate tax charged to wealthy heirs. The estate tax now applies to fortunes above $5.5 million for individuals or $11 million for couples. The Trump administration has portrayed the easing of the estate tax as necessary to protect family farms. But the estate tax hits just 0.2 percent of taxpayers, a tiny minority that by almost any definition counts as being wealthy. Eliminating this tax would likely help the billionaire president's own real estate, licensing and marketing interests, which are now being managed by his family.

KAYLA WOLF, Journal Star 

The lobby of Sandhills Publishing's new Cyber Center includes a large multi-sided video screen that uses technology similar to what The Cube in The Railyard uses.

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'Persons of interest' in Sydney Loofe disappearance in custody in Nebraska

Two people identified by law enforcement as "persons of interest" in Sydney Loofe's disappearance remained in custody Friday, now at the Saline County jail in their hometown of Wilber.

A jail employee confirmed that Aubrey C. Trail, 51, and Bailey M. Boswell, 23, were both being held late Friday at the request of the U.S. Marshals Service.

The two were transported from the Taney County Jail in Forsyth, Missouri, sometime Friday. Forsyth is about five miles northeast of Branson.

Loofe, 24, remains missing. 

Federal and state court records list no new charges against Trail or Boswell, and police haven't publicly accused them of any crime related to Loofe's disappearance. 

Both had warrants for unrelated charges, however: Boswell for missing a court date last year in Lincoln, and Trail on newer allegations of being a habitual criminal and a felon in possession of a firearm. Trail's warrant remains under seal.

Loofe hasn't been seen since Nov. 15, when she and Boswell apparently met for a date after meeting online. Loofe's mother reported her missing the next day after she didn't show up for work at Menards in north Lincoln.

The FBI has set up a dedicated tip line specifically for information related to Loofe's case: 402-493-8688, option 1.

Thursday, Loofe's father pleaded for the public's help during a news conference at the Hall of Justice in Lincoln: "In my opinion, someone knows something," George Loofe said. "Please do the right thing."

He was joined by officials from the FBI, Lincoln Police Department, Saline County Sheriff's Office and the Nebraska State Patrol.

Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister responded quickly during the news conference when asked if there is still hope Loofe could be found alive.

“Yes," the chief said. "Absolutely."

Courtesy photo 

Aubrey C. Trail

Courtesy photo 

Bailey Boswell

Courtesy photo 

Sydney Loofe