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US test goals called elusive

Better schools find improvement hard

By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / September 23, 2010

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As a federal deadline approaches for making all students proficient in English and math, officials in some top area school districts find themselves in an unfamiliar position — explaining why their schools aren’t making enough progress.

A Globe review of this year’s MCAS results, released this month, shows that just under half of area schools — approximately 133 out of 269 — met the “adequate yearly progress’’ standard set under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Nearly every school district in the area had at least one school that did not meet the standard — including such high-performing districts as Arlington, Belmont, Brookline, Newton, Wayland, and Wellesley — and some school officials said the numbers paint an unfair portrait.

“You’re left with the impression that you’ve got a failing school,’’ said Lexington Superintendent Paul Ash. “When you’re already at the ninety-eighth, ninety-ninth percentile, you have to make a certain amount of growth above that level, and it’s just not possible.’’

Under federal law, all children are supposed to be proficient in English and math by 2014, and schools are measured against benchmarks each year to determine the progress of all students, as well as subsets such as special education or low-income students. But as time goes by, those benchmarks creep closer to 100 percent, making it harder for schools to come in over the bar.

“There’s more difficulty reaching that target, even though we’re seeing progress and students improving performance over the years,’’ said Christine Brumbach, director of student development in Needham. Four of Needham’s eight schools met the target this year.

Statewide, 57 percent of public schools fell short of the yearly progress standard.

Four of nine schools in Lexington — a district in which more than 98 percent of tenth-graders scored advanced or proficient on their math and English MCAS exams — did not meet the standard.

Ash said that, while Lexington schools aren’t perfect, the real problem lies in the benchmark that penalizes anything short of steady progress toward perfection.

“The formula is insane,’’ Ash said. “I just shake my head. When we get to 2014, we’re going to have nearly 100 percent of the schools in Massachusetts not making adequate yearly progress. How can that make sense?’’

Consequences for failing to meet the benchmarks range from schools having to notify parents of the school’s status, to allowing families to choose other schools, to, in extreme cases, abolishing or restructuring a school district.

Ash said Lexington will have to send letters home this year notifying some parents of the schools’ status, although he doesn’t foresee more serious consequences later on.

“The state, with limited money, hardly has any interest in coming in to restructure us,’’ Ash said.

In Medfield, two of the town’s five schools didn’t meet the federal progress benchmark. At the Blake Middle School, 96 percent of students scored advanced or proficient on the English MCAS. But the 76 percent of special education students scoring at least proficient on the test wasn’t deemed high enough for the school to meet the progress benchmark for that subgroup.

“The notion that this whole school is failing because of that, it’s just a disconnect,’’ said Medfield Superintendent Robert Maguire. “People in this town know that school’s not failing.’’

Maguire and other area school officials said the progress evaluations seem weighted against middle schools. He noted that Medfield’s high school meets the federal benchmarks with students who previously went to a middle school that is not meeting them.

“My high school does an outstanding job, but they don’t fix the kids in a year and three quarters,’’ he said.

While Maguire bristled at the notion of any of his schools being assigned a negative label, he said he doesn’t discount the importance of the test data or of boosting achievement levels for students with special needs.

“It’s good information for us,’’ he said. “We look at the scores. We’re trying to focus on that group of special needs students. There’s always room for improvement.’’

Natick Superintendent Peter Sanchioni said progress benchmarks that approach perfection may be unrealistic for some students and that parents should evaluate schools based on their own child’s academic growth.

Five of Natick’s eight schools met the federal benchmark.

“We should be held accountable for students to show gains and growth,’’ Sanchioni said. “That’s our mission. We all welcome that kind of challenge. A number of our kids actually increased their score, but they didn’t increase it at the rate that’s required by the federal government.’’

The goal of all students achieving proficiency in English and math by 2014 is “aspirational,’’ said JC Considine, spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Considine said it makes sense that more schools are failing to meet standards as the window between progress benchmarks and perfection narrows.

“I think it’s the nature of the designation and how far along we are now,’’ Considine said. “We’re getting pretty close to 2014.’’

Globe correspondent Calvin Hennick can be reached at calvinhennick@yahoo.com.

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