July 23, 2008

School Progress Reports Show Failures, Successes

By Gareth McGrath, Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.

Jul. 22--It's an annual report card for the state's public schools, and the grades released Monday by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction for the 2007-08 school year could leave some parents concerned.

The results, based on end-of-year math testing of elementary school students and math and reading tests for some high school students, show that more than half of the region's schools aren't meeting national standards.

But area school officials, while noting that work still needs to be done, said many schools missed achieving their Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) target by only one or two goals.

"Meeting every single subgroup is very difficult," said Brunswick County Schools Superintendent Katie McGee. "But it doesn't mean the public school has failed."

Still, there were some schools that were well off the proficiency requirements set by the federal program, notably most of the region's high schools.

New Hanover's Laney High School, for example, met only nine out of its 21 target goals.

"It's certainly something we need to take a look at and try to improve on," said Laney Principal Al O'Briant. "I know myself and my staff aren't satisfied with those results."

The AYP data is a requirement of the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind program. The annual review is meant to provide students, parents, teachers and administrators with a measuring stick of how their school is doing in meeting certain math and reading benchmarks.

But the program has its critics, who note the inherent unfairness of expecting all students to be at the same proficiency level at the same time.

The initiative also carries a lot of penalties for under-performing schools, but few rewards or incentives for schools that meet or exceed their goals.

"It's very much a 'gotcha' mentality," said Rachel Manning, assistant superintendent for Pender County schools.

The federal educational initiative also requires a school to meet all of its target goals, which are based on student subgroups broken down by race, economic status and learning ability, in order to pass.

"It's all or nothing," said Dale Pelsey-Becton, New Hanover's assistant superintendent for instruction. "If you miss just one of your subgroup goals, then the whole school fails to meet its goals."

Changing requirements, along with changing school bodies that can add subgroups to schools, make comparing one year's results to another difficult.

For example, changes in how the state scores the reading tests for students in grades 3 through 8 means those results won't be released until this fall.

Still, the data does provide one way of comparing schools and helps administrators in developing training programs for schools and allocating increasingly scarce resources. It also gives power to parents, since schools have to offer parents schooling options if their child's school underperforms for two consecutive years.

In New Hanover County, only 11 of the district's 38 schools achieved "adequate yearly progress."

But delve deeper and you see that nine of the county's middle and elementary schools missed meeting their math goal by only one target. Another 11 schools had only two or three student subgroups that didn't show improvement.

School officials were especially pleased to see Williams Elementary show progress over last year's scores. The school missed three of its goals last year. This year, it achieved 12 of 13 target goals.

"Once you miss that AYP goal, it's hard, very hard to pull yourself back out," Pelsey-Becton said. "So that was really encouraging to see."

But all four of the county's high schools, which have large and diverse student bodies, continued to struggle.

In a release, Superintendent Al Lerch said the district would continue working with schools that underachieve to pull their scores up.

"This is a work in progress and it will take time to see the overall major improvements," he said. "I am optimistic that we will continue to see immediate impacts as well as long-term gains."

In Pender County, a bright spot was Cape Fear Middle School.

The Rocky Point school historically has been an underachiever.

But Cape Fear met all 21 of its goals this year.

"For them to finally make AYP, that's huge for that school and great news for the staff who have worked so hard," Manning said.

But she added that Pender High School's result, showing the school met only 10 of its 17 goals, was "disappointing."

Overall, just a third of Pender's 15 schools showed adequate improvement. But as with New Hanover, eight of the schools missed meeting their targets by only one or two goals.

In Brunswick County, only seven out of 17 schools showed adequate yearly progress.

But McGee, the schools superintendent, said the program's lack of wiggle room makes it hard for schools like Leland Middle and Lincoln Elementary with large Hispanic and special-education student groups to meet the strict guidelines of showing improvement across the board.

"When you have all of those subgroups, it becomes very challenging to make AYP," she said. "But that doesn't mean the school and the teachers are doing a bad job."

On a positive note, South Brunswick was one of only two large high schools in the three counties to meet all of its goals. The other was Topsail High in Pender County.


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