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Area schools miss making AYP; rating tool misses success signs

WILLMAR -- All but two of the school districts in west central Minnesota are listed by the state as not making adequate yearly progress in reading and math.

However, school leaders say their students are doing well and showing academic gro-wth. The No Child Left Behind education law just doesn't recognize or celebrate their successes.

The state released its annual AYP results to the public today. They were delayed about a month because of the state government shutdown in July.

The designation of not making adequate yearly progress is applied to schools whose students' don't score high enough on annual standardized tests.

Schools and districts must meet the requirements in a variety of subgroups to make adequate yearly progress. If they fall short in one category, the entire district is labeled as not making AYP. The categories include ethnic minorities, students learning English, low-income students and special education students.

"The system is flawed, and it's set up for failure," Tom Farrell, superintendent at BOLD Schools, said Thursday afternoon.

Farrell said BOLD elementary students made adequate yearly progress after missing it for four years, a major accomplishment, but some low scores at the high school level kept the district classified as missing AYP.

Districts and school buildings may face sanctions if they go several years without making adequate yearly progress. Sanctions can include developing formal improvement plans and diverting federal funds for tutoring or teacher training efforts. Eventually the sanctions can lead to a state takeover.

School districts making adequate yearly progress were MACCRAY and Paynesville. Also making AYP were the ECHO charter school in Echo and the Glacial Hills Elementary charter school in Starbuck.

The goal of No Child Left Behind has been to have all children in the United States reading and doing math at grade level by the 2013-14 school year. To accomplish that, the law required states to implement a system of standardized tests with expectations ramping up each year.

Over the past decade, the number of schools that have not met Minnesota's expectations has increased steadily. These results seem to run counter to the state's ability to consistently have one of the top ACT average scores in the nation.

This year, 226 of 335 school districts did not make adequate yearly progress. For charter schools, 87 of 149 schools are not making AYP.

School officials have said from the beginning that No Child Left Behind's goals were laudable but unrealistic. But they have praised the law for bringing a sharper focus on achievement gaps between different groups of students.

Willmar has seen significant improvements in all student categories, said Danith Clausen, the director of curriculum and instruction in Willmar. "It makes it all the more annoying that we're still considered 'failing.'"

The district's efforts in recent years seem to have contributed to a significant increase in elementary reading scores, she said.

The state is applying for a federal waiver that could do away with the current adequate yearly progress system. Clausen said schools would still have to meet goals and show improvement, but the new system would shift the focus to student growth over time and away from scores on a single annual test.

The new system might also give schools more credit for showing improvement, Clausen said.

Willmar fell short of AYP in 12 subcategories as a district a year ago and cut that to six this year. "I hope people can see that we have made a lot of progress," she added.

Yellow Medicine East made adequate yearly progress in one category a year ago and increased that to six this year, according to Superintendent Allen Stoeckman.

Minnewaska Superintendent Greg Ohl said in a news release that the district will be focusing on reading and math scores for junior high students. The release also highlighted the many signs of progress in the district. They include a higher percentage of students passing reading, writing and math tests required for graduation and higher scores at the middle school level.

Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard wrote in an email Tuesday that the district has been working hard at improvement. He pointed out that last year's students had the highest ACT scores since the high school opened in 1994.

Schools and teachers don't have a problem with being held accountable for their work, he wrote, but the punishing nature of No Child Left Behind has not been productive.

"The move from punishment to growth makes sense," he wrote. "Taken all together the law has had little positive impact and much negative impact, because it gave politicians across the spectrum a loaded weapon to shoot at public education. ... A growth model allows schools to work at educating kids, not just getting them ready to take a 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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