Last updated: February 19. 2013 3:43PM - 321 Views

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The official news was bad enough: Only 20 out of 63 Luzerne County public schools achieved mandated goals in state tests this year.

But peel away the layers of statistical nuance used in measuring those tests and the news is worse: If schools were judged strictly on the raw student math and reading proficiency rates, the number of local successful schools would dwindle to three.

It's the difference between achieving absolute, fixed goals and meeting shifting goals that depend on where you start and how close you get.

Think of it as a high jump in track and field: Officially, everyone tries to clear the same height; but under certain circumstances the referee says a lower jump still counts as long as it is better than you did last year, or knocking the bar over is okay as long as you just nipped it with a heel or toe.

When it comes to measuring a school's adequate yearly progress toward all tested students scoring proficient or better in standardized math and reading tests by 2014, that's essentially how AYP is determined.

Proficiency goals set

The state sets minimum proficiency goals that have steadily risen. The goals this year were 81 percent proficient or better in reading and 78 percent in math; next year they rise to 91 percent and 89 percent, respectively.

The measures are applied to all students and to subgroups that statistically do poorly on standardized tests: low-income, special education, English language learners and minorities.

But almost as soon as AYP measurements began in 2002, when the goals were 35 percent proficient or better in math and 45 percent in reading, school administrators argued the system failed to account for a wide range of variables.

They include a sudden increase in the number of students who typically struggle with standardized tests – particularly English as second language learners or special education students -- or a high transient enrollment making a school accountable for test results of students it did not teach.

To accommodate such concerns, the state built flexibility into the system, allowing schools to miss the percentage and still satisfy AYP.

For example, a school can achieve AYP through safe harbor. As long as there was a 10 percent reduction from the previous year in the percentage of students scoring below proficient, the percent scoring proficient doesn't matter.

Safe harbor helped Northwest Area High School make AYP this year. The school fell well below the 78 percent goal in math among the overall population and among special education students, as well as missing the 81 percent reading goal in special education.

Improvement factors in

But because the 37.5 percent of special education students scoring proficient or better in math was 18 points higher than last year, that group made AYP.

Compare that to Hazleton Area's Valley Elementary/Middle School, which had almost exactly the same results in special education math: 37.3 percent proficient or better, but missed AYP because the rate dropped 11.3 points.

Other ways to make AYP without reaching the percentage goals:

• Confidence interval: The student group being measured hit 95 percent of the goal. This is intended to compensate for minor variables or statistical errors.

• Safe harbor with confidence interval: Safe harbor improvement was met using a 75 percent confidence interval.

• Growth model: A group met the measure through a statistical analysis that suggests enough improvement was made to keep it on track toward 100 percent proficiency.

• Appeal: The school successfully argues there were extenuating circumstances or substantive statistical errors in preliminary AYP results. Appeals made a difference at Greater Nanticoke Area Elementary Center, where the reading goals were missed by the overall population as well as special education and low-income subgroups. None topped 63 percent proficient or better, yet all three were deemed as meeting AYP through appeal.

A Times Leader analysis shows that, if the state were to eliminate these variable measurement systems, only three schools in Luzerne County's 11 districts actually met the absolute goals: Chester Street Elementary in Wyoming Valley West School District, Wycallis Elementary in Dallas School District and Sara J. Dymond Elementary in Wyoming Area.

(This excludes seven Luzerne County feeder schools, which generally do not have grades that are tested but are still measures for AYP based on results in the schools they feed. Only one feeder school made AYP this year.)

Countywide, goals were met 21 times through confidence interval, 39 times through growth model, seven times through safe harbor and 24 times through safe harbor with confidence interval.

Keep in mind that these variables can be applied multiple times in one school, to any subgroup in either math or reading. Missing AYP just once in any subject in any subgroup means the school missed AYP completely.

The more subgroups a school has, the more chances to miss AYP. To prevent low numbers of students from skewing results, the state does not count test results if a subgroup has fewer than 40 students in a school.

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