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AYP reports dont reflect true picture
School grades a complicated measure of academic success
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Our Views: Adjust the scales

Schools that did not make AYP

Hall County
Chestnut Mountain Elementary School
Chicopee Woods
Elementary School
Lanier Career
West Hall High School
West Hall Middle School

New Holland Core Knowledge Academy
Gainesville Middle School (second year)

Seven local schools failed to meet federal standards for education this year — a jump of six schools over last year — but officials say it doesn't mean the schools are worse.

The drop in Adequate Yearly Progress scores, released last week, is related to increasing federal standards under the No Child Left Behind Act each year, especially with math test scores in elementary and middle schools and graduation rates for high schools. And schools statewide felt the toughening standards - 71 percent of schools made AYP this year, an eight percentage point drop from last year's 79 percent.

School administrators and teachers have become increasingly frustrated with the idea of "teaching to the test" and meeting standards passed by Congress in 2001.

"The students you have this year are not the same ones you have the following year," said Patty Robinson, Hall County Schools improvement specialist. "We're not
comparing the same group of children year after year. These multiple-choice tests show how students do on one particular day, so you've got one way on one day and that gives you an AYP determination."

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act established standards that would increase each year, requiring that 100 percent of students meet or exceed those standards by 2014. With graduation rates, for example, the standard increases 5 points each year. Last year, schools were required to have a graduation rate of 75 percent; this year, schools needed an 80 percent graduation rate.

"Students learn differently in different ways and at different rates, and these tests give you just one way of showing what you know," Robinson said. "We continue to see the standards increase pretty sharply between now and 2014, and there are now great increases every year to get to the 100 percent mark."

This was the first year the state's graduation rate fell below the standard at 79.9 percent. With only one-third of high schools in the state obtaining AYP status this week, administrators are calling for flexibility.

"AYP is pretty narrowly focused on specific measures of achievement and specific groups of students," said Susan Walker, policy director for Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education. Walker produced a policy brief Thursday afternoon to help parents or lawmakers with questions.

"A school can do well with students across the board, but they are held accountable for making sure every subgroup also performs at the bar," she said. "And sometimes a handful barely miss the mark."

Many times, as in Gainesville and Hall County schools, English-language learners and students with disabilities struggle to meet objectives. Students in each subgroup - white, black, Hispanic, Asian, economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities and English-language learners - count for each category they claim.

For example, a Hispanic special-needs child who is classified in three categories can count three times against the school.

"That's the real difficulty with AYP: It's a great concept to have and a way to deliver a message about how a school is performing, but it's not that simple," Walker said. "In a high school of 2,000 students, 25 or 30 students out of the entire student body can hold you back."

Under the 2001 act, lawmakers agreed to revisit the standards after five years but have yet to make any changes. The holdup on the federal level is "just politics," Walker said.

"When the presidential campaigning started up, there were political reasons not to tackle a gigantic bill," she said. "Since then, other issues have been competing with it, such as the economy, stimulus bill and health care. The intent of the bill was well-intentioned, but when you get down into the weeds and see the nuances, it can lead to an incongruity in how we view our schools."

With increasing concerns about the bill, school officials are turning to local politicians for help. A spokeswoman for Sen. Johnny Isakson said the Georgia senator hopes to see revision in the AYP legislation this year, especially with subgroup students.

He "believes all assessment vehicles of special-needs students should be tied in directly with the student's Individual Education Plan, which deals with the unique circumstances of the child's disabilities," said Sheridan Watson, Isakson's press secretary. "The senator believes this would result in a better outcome for the student and not hold the school accountable for a uniform assessment in a nonuniform environment."

He also thinks non-English speaking students should have more flexibility with test taking.

For now, teachers are working with what they know, and looking ahead to the needs of students for this fall.

"I've already had a teacher ask for scores for students in her upcoming classes," Robinson said. "If she looks at the individual math strand, she can determine if they're stronger in geometry or number sense. We have the capacity to drill down to these specific areas, and teachers can use it in the classroom."

Teachers also use other assessments through the year, such as the Developmental Reading Assessment and the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, to find strengths and weaknesses of the students.

"AYP is a summative indicator at the end of the year, and we use it as a snapshot in a photo album," Robinson said.

"We use the other assessments to know what they really need in the classroom."