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Local leaders say AYP reports don't paint a complete picture of school's achievement

Twelve schools in Muscogee County need improvement, according to state standards.

Preliminary Adequate Yearly Progress results released last week put these schools in “needs improvement” status, meaning they have not met the test score and graduation rate standards set by the state under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for at least two years. Five high schools — Carver, Spencer, Kendrick, Jordan and Shaw — have not made AYP for several years.

But principals at those schools say their graduation rates and test scores are improving. Carver High has increased its graduation rate by nearly 8 percent, from 66.3 to 74.1, and Spencer increased its test scores in math and English — only their graduation rate held them back from making AYP.

“If AYP were based on growth of student achievement, we would have made it in most schools,” said Superintendent Susan Andrews.

Here are some reasons Andrews, school principals and education experts say schools struggle to make AYP year after year.

It’s a moving target

AYP is based on a school’s ability to meet goals set by the state in participation and academic performance on standardized tests, as well as the graduation rate for high schools. Each year, more and more students must perform well on state standardized tests for a school to make AYP. High schools must also increase their graduation rates.

The goal is for all schools in the state to reach 100 percent proficiency in academic performance by 2014.

“The high schools are seeing some improvement,” Andrews said. “But they are not improving as rapidly as the bar is increasing, because the bar moves up every two years.”

This year, the goal for graduation rates was raised from 75 percent to 80 percent. Next year, it will be 85 percent. “The bar keeps changing,” said Jordan High’s principal Ricky Stone. “It becomes more and more difficult to make it.”

The school increased its graduation rate this year from 65 percent to 70.2 percent, but still fell short of the goal.

A school’s AYP status can also depend on the performance of a smaller group of students. The test scores and graduation rates of minority, low-income and disabled students must also meet state goals. Susan Walker, the director of policy and research at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence and Education, said if one subgroup doesn’t make AYP, the whole school can fail to make AYP.

“High schools are at a disadvantage because they are usually larger, and there is the issue of subgroups. A high school is more likely to have subgroups,” Walker said.

Poverty

Four of the five high schools in Needs Improvement are Title I schools, meaning the school has a large number of students from low-income families. These schools are usually eligible for money and government programs, but students from generational poverty come to school less prepared than middle class students, Andrews said.

“The gap with most economically disadvantaged students is very wide,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out what is the magic formula of teacher preparation, time on the task and materials,”

She said some students in each of the Title I schools are meeting the achievement goals, but not enough of them. Educators have to work to get the struggling children focused on academics while they are in school, she said.

“We have to provide training to teachers with what works with children in poverty,” Andrews said. “We have to find out what works.”

Lack of professional development for teachers

Teacher training is what some school systems lack, said Stephen Dollinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.

“Professional development for school systems keeps getting cut,” Dollinger said. “Teachers need more professional development.”

The organization recently did a study on high school completion in Georgia. It looked at schools that had at least an 85 percent graduation rate in 2008, had increased their graduation rate by at least 10 percent between 2004 and 2008 and had sustained an 85 percent graduation rate in 2009. The 15 schools that met this criteria were asked what they did to increase the percentage of students graduating, and many said the increase was due to rigorous teachers who had good relationships with their students.

“If you can provide really focused training for teachers and principals you can really have changes,” he said.

Textbooks don’t match curriculum

School textbook companies usually write books for their biggest markets — states like Texas and California, Andrews said. These textbooks don’t always match up with what students in Georgia are taught, she said.

“There are no textbook companies designing books for the Georgia curriculum,” she said. Teachers have to search the web for extra resources, she said.

Georgia recently switched from the Georgia Performance Standards in math and English to the Common Core Standards, a national set of curriculum standards focused on the skills students need to succeed in college and beyond. Several states, including New York, Florida and Massachusetts, have already adopted the standards, and Andrews said she hoped as more states start to follow the Common Core curriculum, textbook companies will produce books that align with the curriculum.

Meanwhile, school district administrators are working this summer to map the curriculum and provide a better framework and more resources for teachers.

“We have to do a better job of helping them find the resources,” Andrews said. “And it’s not that they can’t find things independently — they don’t have the time.”

Students keep leaving

Students enrolled at schools on the Needs Improvement list have the option to transfer to a better-performing school. Students at Title I schools — Carver, Jordan, Spencer and Kendrick — also get bus transportation to their new school. Most students transfer to either Hardaway or Northside — last year, more than 600 students applied for transfers. This year, all ninth- and 10th-grade transfer students will be housed in annex campuses of Hardaway and Northside on Jordan and Kendrick’s campuses.

Jordan principal Ricky Stone said most of the students they lose are ones who don’t visit the campus.

He said he sent out letters to all students this year, inviting them to visit the school before making a decision. “We didn’t lose as many kids this year, partly due to the annexes,” Stone said.

Carver High principal Chris Lindsey said parents need to visit the school to make a good decision.

“If I had a kid in this school, I wouldn’t transfer them,” Lindsey said. “You have to come and visit for yourself.”

Lindsey said he thought the transferring students could have an effect on the school’s ability to make AYP.

“Sometimes that takes the cream of the crop from a school in Needs Improvement. That could help us make AYP,” Lindsey said.

Andrews said the transfer process could leave more struggling students at schools in Needs Improvement.

“It leaves a higher percentage of weaker students at those schools, but that does not give us an excuse,” she said.

Walker, the director of policy and research at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence and Education, said she hasn’t seen a large exodus of students across the state and didn’t think the transfer process made a big impact on a school’s ability to make AYP.

Can they ever succeed?

Just because a school doesn’t make AYP, it doesn’t mean it’s failing, Walker said.

“I don’t think it should be a black eye on a school,” she said. “It can be a real challenge to make sure the full message is told.”

Principals like Spencer’s Reginald Griffin know about that challenge first-hand. The school has been on needs improvement for more than five years, but is still improving student performance.

“We’ve made our curriculum stronger and we’ve made the school a lot better,” Griffin said. This year, the school only missed making AYP because its graduation rate — 67 percent — did not meet the state goal of 80 percent. The school is in the process of appealing the graduation rate, because some students were falsely counted as drop-outs, Griffin said. If the appeal is granted, the school could make AYP.

“This year’s scores made tremendous gains academically,” he said.

The school is also gradually winning back the confidence of the community as well through its computer science and electronic game design magnet and other academic programs, like its Chinese classes.

“We have to continue making those gains of 10 percent in English or reducing failure in math,” he said.

This year, Spencer and Jordan students will also have an extra 40 minutes of class time as a condition of a school improvement grant. Students will be able to use the time to work on passing the graduation exam or preparing for college and careers after high school.

At Carver, Lindsey said the school has also worked hard to increase its graduation rate, from 66 percent in 2009 to 73.9 percent in 2010.

“It’s just going to take a more concentrated effort,” Lindsey said of making AYP.

“The quality of a school can’t just be measured by test scores,” Andrews said. “We have kids doing well in every single school.”

Challenges ahead

Andrews said the district had to focus on improving math scores to meet the standards.

“The place we’re not making it pervasively across the district is in math,” she said, adding that the data showed black students struggled the most in math.

“We made AYP for the whole district in language arts. We’ve figured out how to teach children to read. We have to have that same laser focus on math for all students.”

Lindsey said he also saw math as a challenge. Students only need a 500 in math on the graduation exam to pass and graduate, but a 516 to meet the math standards.

“The bar is set at 516 — you do the math,” he said. “Why would you want to take the test again if you’ve passed? If they make between a 500 and a 515, it doesn’t count toward AYP.”

New students also pose a challenge to the local schools. The school district is expecting about 4,300 new students after the U.S. Army relocates the Armor School from Fort Knox, Ky., to Fort Benning through its Base Realignment and Closure program. Depending on when the students move into the district, Andrews said, the district has to determine when they are prepared to take standardized tests.

“We worry about how they’ll fit into the Georgia standards,” she said.

Andrews said she also hoped that when Congress reauthorized the No Child Left Behind Act — schools have been asked by the government to call it the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — that it will be more reasonable. She said it might not offer public school choice, so students would remain at the school even if it didn’t make AYP.

“Accountability will always be there, but we’re hoping for more reasonable accountability,” Andrews said.

Andrews said she thought all of the county’s schools would improve their test scores and make AYP.

“I’m convinced we’re going to do better.”

Sara Pauff, 706-320-4469

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