What the test scores mean

Posted: Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Some Alaska schools that did not meet targets for progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act are nonetheless "high-proficiency," Education Commissioner Roger Sampson said in an interview last week.

This afternoon in Anchorage the state was scheduled to release the list of schools that didn't meet proficiency targets in English and math.

"We're asking parents to find out why the schools are on or not on the list," Sampson said last week.

Being listed as not proficient can be as simple as not having enough students take the tests. Sampson cautioned against describing schools on the list as "failing."

Under the federal law, states are required to describe how students in grades three to 10 would be tested in language arts and math, what the threshold for proficiency would be and what the future annual goals would be for adequate progress. The ultimate goal is that all students be proficient in those subjects by 2014.

The law requires states to report the test results by school, by the entire school's population and by nine subgroups of race or ethnicity, poverty, students with disabilities and students with limited English skills.

Subgroups with fewer than 21 students in a school aren't broken out in the test results, and the schools aren't judged in those categories, but those students still are counted in the student body as a whole.

Only the most severely disabled students, capped at 1 percent of the student body, are exempt from the tests.

"Many of our schools have more than 1 percent of severely handicapped kids," Sampson noted.

The law also requires states to report the percentage of students who take the tests. At least 95 percent of students in each school must participate. Small schools are subject to a different way of calculating sufficient participation.

There are good reasons for those standards, said Harry Gamble, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.

"The federal government and we, too, don't want to exclude any kids from the exams. ... We can't hide groups or mask groups," he said.

The state expects that Bush schools that emphasize Native languages will have difficulty staying off the list of schools that need improvement. Some school districts teach students in the Native tongue exclusively in their first three years of school.

"We'll test them," Sampson said. "Will it give us a reliable indication of what those students know? Obviously not."

Schools are judged in 10 categories each for language arts, math and sufficient participation in the tests, and once for its high school graduation rate or attendance. That makes 31 ways a school can get on the list of schools that aren't meeting yearly goals for proficiency.

The state won't include the category on graduation rates and attendance in this year's report, because the information wasn't available from the school districts in time, officials said.

This is the first year schools will be placed on the list, but some schools that have received anti-poverty funds have done poorly on required tests in the past and could be placed on this year's list at a higher level of concern.

For the school year of 2002-03 in language arts, Alaska has set a starting point of 64.03 percent of students who must show proficiency. The state is combining students' scores on reading and writing tests to create one language arts score. The math target is 54.86 percent.

Because applying a rigid percentage to small numbers of students - such as in a very small school or in an ethnic subgroup in a larger school - isn't statistically valid, the state also applies what's called a confidence interval to the group scores. In some cases, therefore, a school meets the annual progress goal with percentages lower than the formal targets.

The 1,200-page No Child Left Behind Act requires states to obey the law if they want to receive a share of the roughly $11 billion the federal government gives schools with high percentages of low-income students. The anti-poverty funds are called Title I.

All schools must meet the goals, but the law sets out different consequences for schools that receive Title I funds. About 60 percent of Alaska's roughly 500 schools receive such funds, including Juneau's Riverbend, Gastineau and Glacier Valley elementary schools.

In no cases will schools that don't meet the goals lose federal funds, but they must spend part of the money to help struggling students.

Title I schools will be required to implement improvement plans, and at some point offer struggling students a choice of schools, if that's feasible, or offer special help. After several years of not meeting the progress goals, a Title I school could see some of its staff replaced, its curriculum changed, or its local management authority reduced.

Schools that don't receive Title I funds must implement an improvement plan, and at some point the state may monitor the school's plan or offer technical assistance in fields such as instruction and curriculum. School districts that receive Title I funds - and that's all 53 districts in Alaska - face similar consequences.

The state, in its federally approved plan, has built in plateaus for its goals of what percentage of students must be proficient. The thresholds for proficiency go up to 70.03 percent in language arts and 62.38 percent in math in the school year 2004-05. The thresholds stay at that level for three years.

The plateaus give students a chance to catch up, Commissioner Sampson said.

The state had hoped to base schools' adequate progress partly on their improvement in test scores even if the target for proficiency wasn't reached. The federal government asked for more information on how that could be done, and the state will provide it, Sampson said. The state's plan can be amended.

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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