Tests and consequences

Fewer of Southwest’s public schools met goals for student achievement in math and reading in 2007, following a trend seen across the district and across the state.

Out of the 18 Southwest public school sites that reported test scores, only four met the state achievement goals required under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Last year, nine of those schools met their goals.

Across the district, only about 22 percent of schools met the benchmarks for student performance on standardized math and reading tests in 2007, down from 44 percent in 2006.

David Heistad, director of the district research, evaluation and assessment, said scores on the standardized tests used to measure student achievement generally held steady this year. But targets for student achievement keep getting higher and higher.

"The number-one issue is the gaps aren’t closing fast enough in reading or math," Heistad said. "We’re seeing some growth, but it’s not sufficient to hit the targets."

Every year, schools are required to show "adequate yearly progress," or AYP, toward math and reading proficiency, or face escalating sanctions under No Child Left Behind. The goal is to have all students 100-percent proficient by 2014.

"High school math was the biggest area of problem" in 2007, Heistad said. "In elementary schools, I think reading was the biggest problem."

Chief Academic Officer Bernadeia Johnson said the district is responding by beefing up some curriculum standards across the district. The math curriculum, in particular, will be strengthened in coming years, Johnson said.

District administrators will also study the successes of "schools that beat the odds," she said. Lyndale Community School, for instance, saw its students’ average math scores jump 37 points in 2007.

"We have isolated successes that we need to make sure are happening across the district," Johnson said.

Rule changes trip up schools

Across the state, the number of schools that failed to show AYP rose to 729 in 2007 from 483 in 2006. In all, more than one-third of public schools fell short of their performance targets.

Many education leaders pointed to changes in the federal rules for reporting test scores as one factor in missing their goals.

Heistad said more schools had to report the test scores for students with limited English-language proficiency and special education students, two groups that tend to post lower scores. In the past, those scores were only counted when 40 students in either group were tested; that limit was lowered to 20 students.

Also, students with limited English proficiency were not allowed to take an alternative reading test, as they had been in years past, Heistad added.

Both special education and limited English proficiency students are examples of "subgroups" whose test scores are used to determine if a school has made AYP. Not only must schools meet testing goals for their entire student body, but also in each of their subgroups.

This can lead a school to be penalized when only one subgroup falls short of testing goals.

‘Fatal flaw’

In 2007, Jefferson Community School met both math and reading testing goals for all students except one group. Jefferson serves a large population of special education students who missed achievement targets in math.

Now, after failing to make AYP three times in five years, the school faces one of the harshest sanctions under No Child Left Behind. It must prepare for restructuring this year, a process that can involve changes to curriculum or replacement of some school staff.

Heistad said the situation highlights a "fatal flaw" in the No Child Left Behind law.

"We still think it’s fundamentally unfair for schools like Jefferson to be on that list," he said.

Peter Vitale, a Jefferson parent, said annual reports on which schools are making AYP don’t always reflect the reality inside school walls.

"As far as I can tell, my kids have some of the best teachers in the district," he said.

Vitale said he and other parents try to counter the perception of a failing school.

"I just talk up [the school] as best as I can," he said.