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Troubled schools in state rise to 480

Agency tallies achievement lags by Cynthia Howell | November 11, 2011 at 5:02 a.m.

— Nearly 45 percent of Arkansas’ 1,071 public schools have failed to meet minimum achievement requirements on state exams for at least two years, according to a state Department of Education report released Thursday.

A total of 480 schools must take steps - which include providing tutors, offering school transfers, changing faculties and/or employing consultants and specialists - to raise student scores.

The 480 schools is an increase of 60 schools over the previous year.

The total includes 35 of the Little Rock School District’s 45 schools; 20 of the 36 schools in the Pulaski County Special School District; 16 of 19 schools in the North Little Rock district; 13 of 26 schools in Fort Smith; and at least nine of the 25 schools in Springdale.

Others falling short include four schools in Fayetteville, six in Rogers, five in Jonesboro, seven in Pine Bluff, seven in Conway, six in Texarkana, two in Cabot, three in Russellville, twoin El Dorado and all seven schools in Blytheville.

Independently run public charter schools were not immune from landing on the state improvement list. The Dreamland Academy in Little Rock and Little Rock Preparatory Academy missed the state minimum requirements for two or more years.

The state placed Academics Plus and e-Stem Elementary, Middle and High charter schools on “alert” status for missing the achievement requirements in one year. If they miss the requirements next spring, they will be put in the improvement categories.

The state Education Department on Thursday released the list of schools and districts judged academically troubled on the basis of results from state Benchmark and End-of-Course exams given last spring.

The state identified 31 entire school districts as needing improvement because of a history of subpar test scores at each of their elementary, middle and high school levels.

That total includes the Little Rock district - the only district listed as being in the improvement program for five years.

Arkansas tests students and labels schools and school districts to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which was passed by Congress in 2001 and signed by President George W. Bush in early 2002. The federal law calls for all students to score at their grade level on state math and literacy tests by 2013-14 - regardless of their race, ethnicity, poverty level, disability or language barriers.

Efforts are under way in Congress to alter the terms of the law. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Education is asking states to propose waivers from parts of the existing law, including the provision requiring 100 percent of students to achieve at grade level by 2014.

Arkansas plans to submit a waiver proposal to the federal agency in early 2012 and, with its approval, could freeze the achievement requirements at levels short of 100 percent proficiency.

Benny Gooden, superintendent of the Fort Smith district, a longtime critic of the current system, shares the view of many: It’s impossible for every student to score at grade level because some children have learning disabilities, language barriers or other particularities

“The whole metric by which you measure adequate yearly progress is a flawed process,” he said Thursday. “It’s been flawed for the 10 years it’s been in existence. Everybody knows it who wants to acknowledge it.”

He said he “couldn’t imagine any situation” in which 100 percent of Fort Smith students would score proficient by the 2014 deadline set by the No Child Left Behind law.

“Maybe an asteroid will hit the Earth,” Gooden said.

Seth Blomeley, a spokesman for the state Education Department, said in an e-mail that changes are needed.

The law requires higher and higher percentages of students to score at grade level every year.

“It wouldn’t be uncommon for schools to improve from one year to the next but still drop in their rankings because they didn’t improve enough,” Blomeley said. “Or, schools could drop because one subpopulation of students failed to [make adequate yearly progress] even though the majority of subpopulations made [it].”

The Education Department places a school in the state’s improvement programwhen the student body or one or more subgroups of students - be they white, black, Hispanic, poor, disabled or non-native English speakers - fail to meet the state’s annual minimum achievement requirements in two consecutive years. A subgroup consists of 40 or more students.

“This unfairly labels schools which may in fact be very good places to learn,” Blomeley said. “This is precisely why we’re excited about the flexibility under NCLB being offered by the U.S. Department of Education. We’re looking forward toward crafting plans with realistic but rigorous achievement targets that also focus on how to offer more help to struggling students.”

ESCALATING REQUIREMENTS

The percentages of students who must score at a proficient or advanced level on the state math and literacy tests increases every year.This year, for example, at least 78.4 percent of pupils in each elementary school had to score at proficient or better in literacy and 77.5 percent of pupils had to score at proficient in math. The required minimum was 70 percent proficient in 2010 and it will go to at least 85 percent proficient for the tests given inthe spring of 2012.

In its first year in the improvement program, a school that has failed to meet the state achievement requirements must provide private tutoring or allow students to transfer to higher-performing schools. The penalties escalate the longer a school remains in the improvement program.

A total of 103 schools are now in the most serious “state directed” category because insufficient numbers of students scored at proficient - or grade level - on the state exams for six or more years.

The number of state-directed schools is up from 78 last year, 58 in 2009 and 16 in 2008.

State-directed schools must take steps such as replacing the principal if the principal has been at the campus for several years or hire a school-improvement specialist to assist the principal. Other possible actions include replacing more than half the faculty and converting an academically troubled school to a charter school.

DIFFERENT LABELS

There are 71 schools classified as “targeted improvement schools,” meaning that 25 percent or fewer of its subgroups fell short of the state requirements. Sixteen schools are labeled as “targeted intensive improvement” because their subgroups failed to meet state marks for three, four and five years.

If the entire student body misses the state requirement or more than 25 percent of the subgroups miss the mark, the state classifies the schools as being in “whole school improvement” or in “whole school intensive improvement” if the achievement has lagged for three or more years. This year there are 224 schools in wholeschool improvement and 66 in whole-school intensive improvement.

There are 335 schools that met achievement standards after the 2011 tests. But 256 schools missed it last spring and are labeled on “alert.” If they miss the requirement on the 2012 tests, the state will identify them as needing improvement.

Schools must meet the standards two years in a row to be removed from the state’s designation list.

In the Little Rock district, the state’s largest with more than 25,000 students, of whom better than 70 percent come from low-income families, the number of schools classified as needing improvement increased from 28 to 35, including 11 that are labeled as state-directed. The district has four school-improvement specialists who assist principals in some of those schools. In others, the principals have been changed.

Eight of Little Rock’s 35 labeled schools met achievement requirements last spring, and if they can repeat the feat, they will be removed from the state’s needing-improvement list next year.

“I don’t know that there was anything that they did in common other than all of our schools and our building administrators are under immense pressure to try to meet standards,” Dennis Glasgow, the Little Rock district’s associate superintendent for accountability, said.

Glasgow said each school followed a plan “that really focused on math and literacy.” He also said the staff used data to determine which students needed remediation.

“All of our schools have after-school programs, and they focused in on the deficits students had in math and/or literacy,” he said.

Glasgow said the district’s greatest challenge is raising achievement levels of students with disabilities. Had the district been able to raise the achievement of the special-education students at least in the elementary schools, the district as a whole could have avoided being labeled as academically troubled for the fifth year.

The Pulaski County Special district as a whole met state achievement requirements this year and will be removed from the improvement list next year if it continues to meet the mark.

“We expect to meet the standard next year,” Linda Remele, the district’s deputy superintendent and chief academic officer, said.

As for the individual schools - 20 of 36 were labeled as needing improvement, often because of a subpopulation of poor students as defined by eligibility for subsidized school meals - Remele said. “We can do better.”

The district is adding literacy and math specialists at the middle and high schoolsand asking those specialists to work not only with teachers but also directly with students with great academic needs.

Additionally, the schools, which have undergone “audits” to identify ways to improve, must make quarterly progress reports to district leaders. And 11 district schools are working with Arkansas Leadership Academy consultants to improve instruction and ultimately student achievement.

The Fort Smith district has students in almost every subpopulation group, including high numbers of poor students, all of which makes it difficult to show sufficient improvement to get off of the list, said Gooden, the district superintendent.

Nine Fort Smith schools were classified as “achieving,” including Morrison Elementary School, which had high enough scores to be removed from the school-improvement list, a point of pride for Gooden.

The district is focusing on helping all its students score at least basic - a term the state uses for students who are approaching a proficient level of achievement - on the test, improving their chances of graduating from high school, he said.

“It just makes sense that we need to be fighting the battle on that end,” Gooden said.

Information for this article was provided by the Evie Blad of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Front Section, Pages 1 on 11/11/2011

Print Headline: Troubled schools in state rise to 480

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