Scores, testing dominate back-to-school discussionEducators plan for challenges in coming school year
Rockland — Parents of students at Rockland's South School received a letter around July 18 informing them of two things — the good news and bad news.
The letter, written by Principal Todd Martin, points out that the school made Adequate Yearly Progress last year (2011-2012) under the No Child Left Behind Act. However, because the school is still identified as a "Continuous Improvement Priority School," parents are being given the choice of sending their children to another school in the district that is getting better scores under federal standards. The cost and transportation of sending the student to the other school will be taken care of by the district.
The school has been targeted for improvement since the 2009-2010 school year, and did not meet its targets in 2010-2011, but Martin has seen an improvement in the test scores driven in part by increased funding for literacy programs at the school and a partnership with the University of Maine that is providing both a reading recovery program for students and professional development for staff members.
Martin himself is working toward his doctorate in literacy education, and some teachers at the school are working toward their master's degrees. This further education is funded by a combination of federal dollars and the school district as part of its contracts with teachers and administrators.
"State test results show that our efforts are working and if we continue to do well on the state test this October, we will no longer be a CIPS identified school," Martin wrote in his letter to parents.
He provided scores from October 2011, showing how the school performed in reading and math. Though the scores appear to be below the targets, the school made Adequate Yearly Progress, he said.
As educators in Regional School Unit 13 prepare for the coming school year, much of their discussion centers on scores, testing and how to improve the ability of children to read at a level expected for students in their grade.
"(2009-2010) was the year we put in place our partnership with the University of Maine and we've seen some great improvement since we started that," Martin said in an interview at the school. "Last year was the first year we actually met adequate yearly progress, and I would say a large part of that was due to professional development with teachers, looking at instructional strategies, putting in place really strong intervention programs for some of our struggling learners."
Special Programs Director Thomas Wright criticized the way No Child Left Behind was structured, pointing out one of the difficulties is that each year the program raises the bar on the requirements for the schools, making it harder and harder to make Adequate Yearly Progress. He also pointed out that it's not just the whole school that matters but the subgroups in the school.
Those subgroups include economically disadvantaged students, special education students, and those learning English as a second language.
"Each one needs to make AYP," Wright said. "As an example, if children receiving special education are not making progress, the school could be identified as CIPS. Could just be one subgroup not making progress."
Martin said about 61 percent of students in RSU 13 qualify for free or reduced lunch and the South School percentage is higher, around 69 percent.
According to the scores provided in his letter to parents, the target for all South School students in reading was to reach 75 percent proficiency in the October 2011 testing. The school overall was at 58 percent. Among economically disadvantaged students it was 49 percent.
Students in other district schools performed better. Gilford Butler was at 85 percent. St. George was at 73 percent.
In math, the target was 70 percent. South School was at 58 percent. St. George was at 54 percent, according to the letter from Martin. Owls Head performed the best in math at 88 percent.
Martin acknowledged the scoring system is very complicated and graded on a formula, so even missing the target, the South School made AYP.
The pitting of the schools against each other can be misleading as well. The school officials said smaller schools like Gilford Butler and Owls Head could never be labeled CIPS schools because their special education population is so small it cannot be reported as a subgroup under No Child Left Behind without a danger of identifying particular students.
Martin said the issue of literacy is critical in schools.
"All the research says if they aren't reading at grade level at the end of third grade, they aren't going to catch up," he said.
At a recent meeting of the school district's curriculum committee, Oceanside West Principal Larry Schooley and Oceanside East High School Principal Tom Forti outlined plans for helping students who need to catch up on their reading as they transition from grade eight to nine.
The high school will be offering "bridge English" courses that provide smaller teacher-to-student ratios and more attention as they improve their reading skills. The courses will be offered to about 24 students, split into two classes.
"If you can't read well, you're not going to do well in any other subject area," Schooley told the committee.
"By the time you get to the eighth, ninth grade, you're playing catch up," said committee member Donald Robishaw. "You need to start in the lower grades."
"You're preaching to the choir," Forti said. "We've known for years that when students are reading a couple or more grade levels below where they should be, difficulties are immense in terms of text books and online reading and things like that. So it affects all your classes."
Robishaw asked if more summer classes were offered this year and if they were well-attended.
"Too well-attended," Forti said. "I'd rather see less kids in summer school than we have."
This year the two high schools offered summer school classes in all the core subjects for about 12 to 14 kids per summer school class, which Forti said was a "huge increase over the past." Summer school went from two to four classes this year.
In terms of looking at testing and scores, Forti said the district needs to reduce the amount of time some students, including those in grade 11, are being tested. The number of tests they are taking means they are being pulled out of classes too often for testing and they are starting to not take the tests as seriously.
Forti proposed having one writing assessment annually, instead of twice per year.
"In grade 11 you're doing writing assessment twice per year on top of PSAT's and other testing," he said. "A lot of pull out time. And the tests lose credibility. It's like surveying someone to death. After a while you start checking it off or not taking it seriously. Some of these high stakes tests, we need them to take seriously. We can't have up years and down years in SATs, we need consistently high years in SATs."
History is becoming just that
The constant pressure of testing in reading and math is also affecting what subjects are focused on in school. Martin and other school administrators have acknowledged that history, geography and science have not been given the same priority as reading.
"The district just put in some parameters of learning times," Martin said. This year there will be set times for science and social studies each day or a combination. "A lot of the time those areas are integrated into literacy. So you won't necessarily have a science period — you will this year, because of those new parameters — but everything kind of goes through that literacy."
"But again," he added. "You know, that's what we're being assessed on, is that literacy score and that math score."
"I would say, historically, compared to when I was in school, we probably haven't spent as much time in those subject areas," he said. "We don't teach to the test, but we want to make sure we teach kids how to read."
"With No Child Left Behind the emphasis is always on reading and math," Wright said.
Administrators in higher grades have also focused on reading.
"We could possibly be adding some [bridge] courses in science and social studies," Schooley said to the committee. "Again, our reason for focusing on English is we think the reading, it affects everything. If we can intervene there, maybe the kids don't need to take a bridge course in science and social studies. We'd rather they take the college-prep level course."
The academic interventions come at a price. Wright said that in the last few years, the district has spent close to $50,000 per year for professional development for the teachers in South School. In remedial instruction, the district has spent about $300,000 a year in salaries alone for the building to help kids having difficulties.
RSU 13 Business Manager Scott Vaitones said the school district receives Title 1 funding, which is used for additional teachers to provide supplemental support in reading and math.
On the professional development side, he said all teachers hired after Sept. 1 are required to earn a master's degree within 10 years. Employees hired before that time were grandfathered. The school district funds these college courses.
"We would want that," Martin said. "We would want administrators and teachers who continue their education and learning. Absolutely. I think that's important."
News Editor Daniel Dunkle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at @DanDunkle.