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Area students are making it, but not enough for state

Imagine running a footrace. Every time you get close to the finish, someone moves it beyond your reach.

That's how Litchfield Superintendent Bill Wold feels about the adequate yearly progress list released by the state on Monday.

"We keep running the race," Wold said Monday. "As soon as we make a little progress, the finish line gets moved."

The list details whether students in Minnesota's public schools were able to meet the state's goals on standardized reading and math tests they took last spring. Each year, the goals increase, with an ultimate aim of having all students in the nation doing grade-level work by the 2013-2014 school year. It's one of the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind education law.

In cases where students don't meet state goals on the tests, school sites or even entire school districts can be listed as not making adequate yearly progress. In some cases, one subgroup with struggling students can put an entire district on the list.

In fact, that's what happened to four school districts and a charter school in west central Minnesota. Twenty-one school sites also made the list because of one subgroup of students.

In many cases, the subgroup that has the most problems with the test is special education students.

"By definition, special ed means you are below your grade level," said Danith Clausen, director of curriculum and instruction for Willmar Public Schools.

Clausen, too, said the ever-increasing goals are difficult for school districts.

Willmar had a particularly difficult year with AYP requirements. Students in several subgroups did not meet the state's goals -- Hispanic students, black students, those with limited English proficiency, special education students and low-income students.

The district's students are making progress every year, Clausen said. It isn't always enough to keep up with the state's rising requirements, though.

"We're doing a lot of good things," Clausen said. "This certainly is not for lack of trying." The district's staff is "teaching their hearts out," she added.

Wold said he expects many more schools to fall short on the tests as the state's requirements continue to rise.

Of 19 school districts and three charter schools in west central Minnesota, 13 districts and one charter school did not make adequate progress, according to the state.

Of 73 school sites in the area, 37 sites in 16 different districts did not make adequate progress. That number includes alternative schools and special programs. In the traditional school buildings, 31 of 60 did not make AYP.

A year ago, 11 districts and 29 school sites did not make adequate progress.

Statewide, 1,066 of 2,303 schools did make adequate progress, but 1,048 did not. Both of those numbers are higher than a year ago because the state has started testing more school sites.

Schools that consistently do not meet adequate progress are subject to sanctions, including writing improvement plans, offering students their choice of schools within a district, offering tutoring or other services and eventually restructuring a school building.

Two schools in west central Minnesota will be required to offer tutoring in the coming year, and six will be required to offer school choice.

The problem with the school choice option is that it doesn't really fit rural districts, where there is mostly only one elementary school or one high school, Wold said. "This was designed for inner-city schools."

Funding for the sanctions is taken from school districts' Title I funding, which would otherwise be used to help elementary students struggling in reading and math.

Clausen said she is frustrated by the punitive nature of the sanctions and the drain on Title funding. However, NCLB has done good things for school districts and their students, she said.

Teachers can use the data from the tests to see how individual students did and to identify areas that need more attention.

"We try to develop strategies that will help all the kids," Wold said. "We do a lot of other things in school besides give this one test."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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