Progress test put pressure on schools

Marlena Hartz: Freedom Newspapers

When La Casita Elementary did not make Adequate Yearly Progress last year, school officials had to change the way they taught.

According to AYP scores, a federal measure of math and language arts proficiency and a part of the president’s No Child Left Behind push for accountability, La Casita fourth graders needed to improve their math skills.

“We decided to focus on the student’s who neared proficiency in math — to give them that extra push they needed to make it into the proficient category,” said David Briseno, former principal of La Casita, now the federal programs director for Clovis schools. “We said OK, ‘where do we need to work with students in math?’ We focused a lot on that throughout the school year.”

This year’s AYP results — for New Mexico, all its districts, and all its schools — will be released Monday to the public. The measure expanded in 2004-2005 to include grades three through nine and high school juniors.

Six schools in Clovis and eight in Portales did not make AYP last year. They now teeter on the brink of a five-prong federal program: If a school fails to make AYP for two consecutive years, it enters into the first phase of the program, “School Improvement I,” and is required, among other things, to provide students access to a school not marked in need of improvement. If the school continues to consecutively fall short of AYP standards, the end result could be possible replacement of all or most of the school’s staff.

Across the state, 34 of 89 districts did not meet AYP in 2003-2004.

“It’s a scary process for schools. We are in situation where
the community doesn’t decide anymore whether we have a good school. That’s decided by a report,” Clovis Superintendent Rhonda Seidenwurm said from her office.
Seidenwurm, like many, is ambivalent when it comes to AYP and the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, which are turning some schools topsy-turvy.

“This test really requires that kids think critically,” Seidenwurm said. “If our teachers are teaching to that test, then I’m thrilled. It is an excellent test, very rigorous and very relevant to the kinds of things our kids will have to do in the real world.”

Last year, Portales Junior High School Principal Steve Harris was proud of his students’ AYP performance even though his school didn’t make AYP.

The school landed on the dreaded list because special education students, a labeled AYP subgroup, fell short of AYP reading standards, therefore, the entire school failed AYP. It is this, and the way in which student progress is measured, that has Harris, and a lot of other professionals, irked.

“It pushes schools to do the best they can, but it’s not a good judge of what an entire school does. A subgroup (such as special education students) can be as small as 25 — the school is being judged on 1/12 of the school’s population,” Harris said.

Harris also said the test’s tracking system is skewed. He is part of a growing camp of lobbyists who believe AYP results should be tracked individually rather than by grade.

“They are not even tracking the same group of kids from year to year,” said Harris. For example, he said, the federal government will hold this year’s seventh-graders accountable for improving the scores of last year’s seventh-graders.

“There are always ways to do things better. The whole idea of No Child Left Behind is great, but I don’t think it’s reality,” said Harris, who hopes for more pragmatic AYP standards.
As the Clovis-Portales area braces itself for this year’s AYP tidal wave, Seidenwurm waxes … pragmatic.

“Test scores in mathematics will be down across the state because it is the first year all grades were given the test,” Seidenwurm said. “You had lots of teachers who gave this test in April who had never given it before and had no clue what the test was looking for. Because it is the first year all grades were given,” she said, the expectation is low, but “benchmarks will be set.”

That means this year will set the bar for years to come. The end goal: 100 percent student proficiency in language arts and math by the year 2014.

And Clovis, the superintendent oft-reminds, is in “the same boat as the rest of the state.”