Last updated: August 31. 2013 11:02PM - 3823 Views
By - mguydish@timesleader.com

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Remember that lofty goal of all public school students being proficient in reading and math by 2014? Fuggedaboutit.

Technically, the goal applied to students in grades three through eight and 11 — the ones required to take annual state standardized math and reading tests, but the rhetoric made it sound like it applied to all students, literally. The name of the law that set the goal was “No Child Left Behind.”

Yet with the wave of a pen, or more exactly a federal waiver granted to Pennsylvania, all that disappeared last week. Ten years of chasing “Adequate Yearly Progress,” or AYP, ended, even if all the testing continues. When the state makes it’s annual public release of test results sometime next month, there will be no mention of AYP. The 100 percent proficiency goal is likewise kaput.

Signed in January 2002 with bipartisan support from President George W. Bush and liberal icon U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, the law mandated annual testing nationwide and required the percentage of students scoring “proficient” or better rise steadily until hitting 100 percent in 2014. States could devise their own tests and decide what the percentage goal was for each year, but the feds had to approve.

Schools also had to hit minimum goals in graduation or attendance rates, and test participation rates. The proficiency goals also had to be reached by “subgroups” of students that statistically do poorly on such tests, including special education, English Language Learners, minorities and low-income students.

Hit all the goals and a school was said to have made “Adequate Yearly Progress.”

Making AYP became the holy grail for public schools. Missing it created an image problem; missing it repeatedly brought state action ranging from requirements to increase student support to allowing students to transfer to another school. The ultimate consequence: A state takeover of the school.

Unattainable standards

What happened? Critics argue reality kicked in. As 2014 approached and the proficiency percentage kept climbing, more schools missed AYP. Consider: In 2005, only seven Luzerne County Schools missed AYP; in 2012, only 19 schools made AYP (the number of schools varied slightly over the years as some closed and others reconfigured in ways that meant they were not teaching grades being tested; last year the county had 62 schools measured for AYP).

As the trend became obvious and the federal government failed to take any action to revise No Child Left Behind (it should have been re-authorized in 2007) the U.S. Department of Education started granting waivers letting states set up alternative systems of accountability. Pennsylvania was late in the game; 41 states already had sought and won waivers.

“Essentially they are acknowledging that every kid is not going to score proficient,” Luzerne Intermediate Unit Executive Director Anthony Grieco said. “Take a special education kid who, diagnostics tell us, is functioning four or five years below grade level. It’s not fair to expect him to take the same test as other students his age.”

The LIU provides a variety of services to area districts, primarily special education. Along with the state’s 28 other Intermediate Units, it is tasked with helping districts adapt to what will replace AYP: School Performance Profiles, or SPPs, which will report how a school has done in meeting four “Annual Measurable Objectives,” or AMOs. (AYP might be dead; government acronyms are alive and kicking).

In a nutshell, the waiver moves the state away from a fixed proficiency goal and looks instead at individual student progress. Here are the essentials, as spelled out in state documents:

• Instead of labeling schools as making or not making AYP, the state will recognize schools by three designations: “Priority,” “Focus” or “Reward.”

• The designations will apply only to schools with a “high percentage” of “Title I” students. “Title I” is shorthand for the federal law that provides money for education programs helping low-income students. According to Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Timothy Eller, there are 48 such schools in Luzerne county. No high schools are on the list, though Wilkes-Barre Area’s junior/senior high schools (GAR and Meyers) are.

• The three designations will be determined based on aggregate math and reading proficiency in grade schools, and on the state’s new “Keystone” exams in algebra I and literature for high schools. (The state replaced the 11th-grade math and reading tests with Keystone exams in several subjects, which are given when a course is completed and can be retaken multiple times).

• Unlike AYP, which was based on absolute goals, the “reward,” focus” and “priority” designations will be relative. The highest 5 percent of Title I schools will be “reward” schools, the lowest 5 percent will be “priority” schools, while the lowest 10 percent — excluding those designated as priority — will be “focus” schools. A school can also become a focus school if the graduation rate is below 60 percent or test participation is below 95 percent.

• All public schools will get the new, annual SPPs, letting the public see how they are doing in reaching their AMOs, but only the “Title I” schools will get one of the three designations —or no designation, if they are between the bottom 10 percent and top 5 percent.

“Reward” schools will get public recognition and be eligible to compete for state grants, though that assumes the state will have money to give out as grants. Priority and Focus schools will get increased assistance from the state to improve student achievement, but might also be required to make substantial “interventions,” which could include replacing principals or teachers.

What are the AMOs?

Along with test participation and graduation rate goals, schools must close the “achievement gap” in test results for all students,though Grieco noted educators are still awaiting “guidance” on what that means exactly.

“It’s happening late and the state Department of Education is is really in flux,” Grieco said, noting there technically is no secretary of education and the acting secretary, William Harner, has only been on the job a few weeks.

Schools must also close the achievement gap for “historically underperforming groups,” which refers to those subgroups mentioned before. But Grieco noted the new system doesn’t treat each group separately, instead looking at them as one large group.

“I think it’s more equitable,” Grieco said. Under AYP, a student could belong to multiple subgroups — a minority English Language Learner from a low-income family, for example, and a poor test result would count against the school in each subgroup separately. “Now that student only counts once.”

The new system will rely heavily on the Pennsylvania Value-added Assessment System tests, which are designed to measure individual student achievement each year against what that student should have, statistically, accomplished.

The new system also lets schools use other assessments to demonstrate student progress. West Side Career and Technology Executive Director Nancy Tkatch said this could be a big boon for schools like hers, where students attend full-time and receive both their academic classes and career training.

West Side never officially made AYP, which was gauged by the 11th-grade math and reading tests. Tkatch said the new system will also look at results in the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute (NOCTI) Tests, and that West Side students do very well in those — though she added there has been big improvement in the traditional state tests as well.

“Measuring each student’s growth rather than performance as a whole will favor us because we see significant growth within each year,” Tkatch said.

Tkatch is less sure of one other component of the waiver: using data in the SPPs and AMOs in evaluating teachers under the state’s new teacher evaluation system. “I”m not sure one way or another yet,” she said. “There are other ways to measure teacher effectiveness, and I’m not sure that’s the best emphasis.”

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