School progress reports offer small glimpse of bigger picture

Posted: Wednesday, September 03, 2003

More than a decade ago, Alaska launched a massive effort called the Alaska Quality Initiative. Part of that initiative was defining what all students should know and be able to do as a result of their educational experience. Businesses, parents, students and educators came together, setting the Alaska content and performance standards. The next step was the development of tests and assessments to measure student performance against these standards.

Last year, the federal government adopted the No Child Left Behind legislation requiring public schools around the country to report their performance. Each state developed an accountability plan Alaska was well on its way to the worthy goal of making sure every single student had the essential skills required for success in the world beyond school. The Terra Nova and Benchmark exams required of Alaska students in grades three through 10 became the basis for the federal accountability plan. On Aug. 20, Alaska was required to report progress toward the target of each student making adequate yearly progress (AYP). AYP means that each student increases his or her reading, writing and mathematics skills at a certain rate from year to year. That makes sense. However, the adequate yearly progress designation is much more complex. Think of it as a puzzle with more than 30 pieces. If any one piece is missing, the puzzle isn't complete and the school doesn't make AYP.

Two main components of AYP are participation and performance. The measure used for participation is 95 percent. That means 95 percent of the students have to take the test not just in the whole school but also in each of the subgroups (like economically disadvantaged, different ethnic groups, learning disabled population). Keep this in perspective on a usual day in the school district, the attendance is about 90 percent. If the school doesn't have 95 percent of the students there for the testing, it doesn't make AYP, no matter what their performance level is.

Performance is the area most parents and educators are interested in. We want to know how students are doing. But we also need to keep in mind that tests measure a very small slice of performance basically the work of a student on a given day on a given test. The information we use from these tests gives important specifics for designing instruction to meet the needs of all students. The performance level increases over the 12 years of this legislation, and the final target in 2014 is that 100 percent of the students will be proficient in reading, writing and math. That means every single student, in every single subgroup, including learning disabled.

If I could illustrate how this puzzle doesn't all fit together: We have a large school in our district that is performing at a level not required until 2009. However, because only 26 of 29 students in an ethnic subgroup were tested, we did not meet the 95 percent participation rate required in that subgroup, and the school therefore did not make AYP. One student more tested in that subgroup would have made the difference. That doesn't mean that the data should be discounted, rather it should be put in perspective and used, especially in this first year of release to identify improvement measures.

So, how did the Kenai Peninsula Borough do as a district? Forty-one schools were tested (Sears and Paul Banks elementary schools only have students in kindergarten through second grade, so they do not have results shown). Of those 41, 20 of the schools made adequate yearly progress. Of the 21 schools that did not make AYP, 10 missed it because of only one cell, six because of two cells, three because of three cells and two because of four cells out of the possible 30 combinations. Again, we have work to do, but the sky is definitely not falling nor are our schools failing.

As a teacher, the data that we now know about each student's performance each year is valuable and useful in designing instruction. As a parent, the data about performance standards will assist in charting courses and direction and targeting help at home. As a school and district, the information will be used to make a positive difference in the lives of students. We will use the data to improve instruction.

What can parents do to help bring this puzzle all together? First, let's make sure that students all get to school for the test. This year's exams are scheduled for Feb. 17 to 19. Just by showing up, our participation rates will increase and therefore several pieces of the puzzle will be in place. Second, parents should review the data regarding their child's and school's performance. Classroom teachers, principals and counselors will be available to answer questions and provide assistance and information.

Thank you for working together to make a difference for all students. The public school system is the cornerstone of our democracy and the performance levels of the majority of our students and schools demonstrates tremendous success. We will continue analyzing, reporting and improving.

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