September 16, 2008

Off the No-Progress School List ; Staff at a Biddeford School Analyzed Weaknesses and Developed Different Ways to Improve Student Skills.


Two years ago, Biddeford Middle School was in a bad spot. For three years in a row, the school had failed to improve as expected under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

It was on the Maine Department of Education's priority list of public schools that needed to show progress on annual standardized reading and math tests. If its reading scores didn't start rising soon, the school risked being forced to restructure its administration, replace all or most of its staff and retool its curriculum.

That's all in the past now. State officials announced last week that they had removed Biddeford Middle School from the priority list after it showed "adequate yearly progress" on the Maine Educational Assessment, or MEA, for a second year in a row.

"We were great, and now we're greater," said Charles Lomonte, the school's unabashedly proud principal.

How Biddeford Middle School got off the list shows what some schools must do to demonstrate success under No Child Left Behind.

It puts flesh on stark statistics that outrage the public each time the state releases its annual list of schools that fail to show progress. And it warns of the challenges that more and more schools will face in the next five years when proficiency targets rise as required by federal law.

"The way (No Child Left Behind) is written, you'll need to hit 100 percent proficiency for all students in both reading and math by 2014," said David Connerty-Marin, state Education Department spokesman. "It's possible that every school will eventually make the list."

More than one-third of Maine's public schools failed to show improvement in 2007-08 based on the MEA test administered last spring. Among 632 elementary, middle and high schools across the state, 241 (38 percent) missed proficiency targets in reading, math or both. In 2006-07, 232 (37 percent) of 635 schools failed to make progress.

Enacted in 2001, No Child Left Behind requires all states to assess student performance in reading and math each year in grades 3 through 8 and in grade 11. Maine uses the MEA and the SAT.

Federal law focuses on five subgroups - American Indian, African- American, economically disadvantaged, limited English proficient, and students with disabilities - as well as the whole school. A subgroup consists of 20 or more students.

If any school or subgroup fails to make adequate yearly progress, the federal term for educational success, a school is put on "monitor" status for a year and "priority" status each year afterward until it shows progress. Each priority level carries increasing sanctions, including the option for parents to move students to a better-performing school within the district, if one exists.

As a result of Maine's 2007-08 scores, 107 schools were put on "monitor" status. Thirty-one schools were added to the priority list, which now totals 103 schools. Thirteen schools, including Biddeford Middle School, were removed from the priority list because they made progress for a second year in a row.

Biddeford Middle School, the city's only middle school, made monitor status after the 2003-04 MEA, moved to the priority list after the 2004-05 test and stayed there in 2005-06.

The problem was the school's reading scores. In 2005-06, only 40 percent of nearly 700 students in grades 6 through 8 met or exceeded state reading standards, 10 points below the 50 percent proficiency target. The school has consistently made adequate yearly progress in math.

In the summer of 2006, with a new principal, a new school building and some new staff, the school took a whole new tack.

"We had a totally clean slate, so we decided we were going to leave the old ways behind and start anew," Lomonte said.

He worked with his staff to develop new goals for the school. He pulled together several existing educational programs and initiatives and focused them on improving student achievement.

He established a data team of teachers to review standardized test results and other assessment information and identify areas where students were having trouble. If a child was weak in fractions or reading comprehension, his or her teacher was advised to spend extra time teaching that skill.

The data team also looked at overall weaknesses across grades or throughout the school. The team determined that measurements were a problem, for instance, so the school stepped up lessons about time, length and volume.

The school also started holding two-day summer institutes for teachers. They studied how to teach children at different skill levels, integrate technology into everyday lessons and develop multidisciplinary classroom projects. Sixty of the school's 95 staff members attended this summer's institute, Lomonte said.

Because the school receives federal funding for disadvantaged students, it qualified for No Child Left Behind money and assistance through the state Department of Education. The school got $31,000 in 2005-06, $33,000 in 2006-07 and $62,000 in 2007-08. That year, seven teachers went to Portland, Ore., to learn new ways to measure and reinforce student progress throughout the year.

The school also started emphasizing test-taking skills. Students learned how to eliminate obviously wrong answers in multiple-choice questions, identify context clues and highlight key words at the core of any question.

"The way tests are developed today, students aren't going to do well unless they're taught how to take them," Lomonte said.

All the extra work seems to be paying off. The school's reading proficiency was 59 percent in 2006-07 and 66 percent in 2007-08, well over the 50 percent target.

At the same time, reading proficiency in the school's subgroup of students with disabilities increased from 12 percent in 2005-06, to 23 percent in 2006-07, to 34 percent in 2007-08, showing the necessary improvement of at least 10 points each year.

"That's a significant improvement," said George Tucker, a consultant with the state's Title I School Improvement Team. "When the whole school improves like that, it happens for the subgroups, too."

With so much attention paid to raising test scores, Lomonte and other education officials don't take issue with the idea that Maine schools are "teaching to the test." They point to the Maine Learning Results, a guidebook that outlines in detail all of the skills that students are expected to learn at each grade level and is the basis of the Maine Educational Assessment.

"If you're teaching to the standards of the Maine Learning Results, then you're teaching to the test," Connerty-Marin said.

Looking ahead, Biddeford Middle School will have to keep improving student reading scores each year, shooting for 75 percent proficiency by 2010-11 and continuing to 100 percent proficiency by 2013-14. If the school doesn't keep up, it will end up back on the priority list, and so will many others.

"One hundred percent proficiency is a laudable goal," Connerty- Marin said. "But in reality, that's a pretty hard target to meet, even for the best schools."

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]



The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires states to develop plans to reward and sanction schools that receive federal funding under Title I, the portion of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that aims to improve academic achievement of disadvantaged students.

* Districts can use Title I money in schools where at least 35 percent of students come from low-income homes. Schools can use the money in many ways, from hiring additional staff to buying teaching materials.

* Schools that don't receive Title I funding aren't accountable to No Child Left Behind. Still, the Maine Department of Education expects all public schools to strive to meet educational standards outlined in Maine Learning Results.

* Title I schools that demonstrate consistently high achievement or show steady improvement on the Maine Educational Assessment receive a certificate of appreciation from the state.

Under No Child Left Behind, Title I schools that fail to show "adequate yearly progress" face increasing scrutiny and intervention by the state until they show improvement.

* Maine law prohibits the state Department of Education from taking over local schools as allowed under No Child Left Behind, which cannot supersede state law on this point.

Source: Maine Department of Education


* See where your school stands at: education/ pressreleases/ayp


Timeline of possible sanctions that Maine schools face if they fail to show progress:

FIRST YEAR: School is put on monitor-status list and required to develop an improvement plan.

SECOND YEAR: School put on priority list; parents given option to transfer students to higher-performing school in district; Title I funds allocated in specific ways under federal law.

THIRD YEAR: School must increase tutoring and other federally funded services to low-income students.

FOURTH YEAR: School must implement at least one corrective action, such as using a new curriculum or hiring an outside expert.

FIFTH YEAR: District must develop plan to restructure school, which could include replacing administration and staff or hiring an outside firm to run the school.

SIXTH YEAR: School must implement restructuring plan.

Source: Maine Department of Education

Originally published by By KELLEY BOUCHARD Staff Writer.

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