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Nothing puts a bad spin on summer break like the annual Adequate Yearly Progress school reports.
Like a student awaiting a bad report card, school systems sweat out the annual grade under the No Child Left Behind law that determines whether they will make AYP or wind up on the dreaded Need Improvement list.
After a strong showing in the test score standard last year, many local schools didn't make out as well this time around. Both Hall County and Gainesville failed to meet AYP systemwide, while seven of their schools came up short. Last year, all of the county schools reached that level; only one city school did not.
The decline is blamed on the increase in state standards in math scores, along with requiring a higher graduation rate for high schools.
Raising standards is good; students need to be pushed to learn to their full potential. But the way these grades are weighed has gone beyond the original intent of the law and needs to be revisited.
In the case of AYP, there are too many mitigating factors beyond the control of school administrators and teachers. Test scores may indicate students are not learning enough of the key material. But often it is a particular subgroup's struggles with reading or math that drive scores for a school or entire system below what is considered "adequate."
In Gainesville and Hall County, that often involves students who are not proficient in English, an ongoing challenge that can't easily be measured by test scores. In some cases, special-needs students with learning disabilities tested poorly, driving down averages. Again, there is only so much teachers can do to raise standards among those who face these learning challenges.
It doesn't help, either, that budget cuts statewide and locally have tied educators' hands. Fewer resources and more consolidation of classrooms and schools have made it increasingly difficult for teachers to provide one-on-one instruction that at-risk students need.
There also is an inherent problem in how the scores are tallied. For instance, a class of third-graders is tested one year, then moves on. The next year, a new group of third-graders is tested, students who may face a whole different set of learning challenges. Yet if their scores don't measure up, the school may fail to make AYP.
What many educators prefer is to gauge student progress in a linear fashion, following classes year-to-year to see that they are progressing at grade level. One snapshot doesn't provide that, nor does it help educators target what areas a particular group of struggling students needs to address.
Some systems tackle this by tracking student progress on their own. Gainesville has new computer software designed to evaluate students over a period of time in key subjects, not just at the end of certain mileposts.
School leaders are doing their part to make this flawed system work. Now it is up to state and federal education leaders to adjust the law to better assess student progress.
The concept behind the law, passed in 2001 with bipartisan support, was to make schools accountable for what kids learned. Schools that simply passed students on to the next grade without setting standards would be singled out, their principals and faculty held to task.
It was a worthwhile effort to make schools reach for a minimum standard of learning, and give parents of kids in failing schools options when those schools did not comply. But the law has gone beyond that goal, now flagging otherwise successful schools for missing certain benchmarks. This undermines the spirit of the law and puts educators and students on the defensive.
More flexibility is needed in how schools are judged, especially when they offer creative new teaching methods as seen in the charter models. They should not be punished for the failings of a few when the glass is actually more than half full. The positive efforts seen in many classrooms should be rewarded and encouraged, lest too many teachers again resort to "teaching to the test" just to get over the AYP hurdle.
Schools already have sacrificed many of the disciplines available to the parents and grandparents of today's students, both for budgetary and practical reasons. Art, music and social sciences have been abandoned so schools can focus on cramming math, reading and language arts into kids' minds in time for the exams.
Our schools once were centers of learning and achievement that allowed students to find their own calling. In time, many educators allowed learning standards to deteriorate. Now in the last decade, that pendulum now has swung back, perhaps too far, in the other direction.
Yes, we should hold schools to high standards. We should insist teachers provide lively and effective instruction in the key subjects to enlighten our future workforce, voters and community leaders. But those standards need to be applied fairly and sensibly, and if the methods do not effectively measure achievement, they need to be fine-tuned.
It is time for President Barack Obama and Congress to fulfill the promise made in 2001 to review the No Child standards in five years, even if four years late. The law needs to be revised to give school systems reasonable, reachable goals. And while the scores of certain subgroups should not be tossed aside, they should not be allowed to drag down the success of an entire school.
It is important that we, parents and society at large, know what our students are learning and where we need to focus on helping them improve. The current standards are no longer the best tool available to do so. It is time for political and educational leaders to sharpen that tool so our schools can better do their jobs.