Test scores rise, but schools stuck in 'program improvement'
The Mountain View Whisman School District is entering its second year of what is known as "program improvement," even though academic performance increased overall and test scores were up in kindergarten through fifth grade.
The district improved its academic performance index score by nine points last year, and elementary school students showed overall growth in standardized test scores in language arts and math over the same period. Still, it was not enough to keep the district from entering program improvement — a state- and federal designation for a district or school has missed certain specific academic targets for two years running.
Assistant Superintendent Mary Lairon acknowledges that work needs to be done, especially in the district's middle schools and among special education students. Students in sixth through eighth grade showed little growth in language arts and an overall drop in math achievement. Test scores for eighth-grade history and science dropped slightly, as did scores for fifth-grade science. Special education students also failed to hit state standardized testing targets.
Still, Lairon said she feels that the district has been doing well in general, and noted that the rules surrounding the program improvement designation need to be modified.
"The regulations associated with program improvement are sometimes frustrating," Lairon said.
Not all public schools and districts in California are subjected to meeting state standardized testing targets in order to avoid falling into program improvement. The Mountain View Whisman School District is subjected to it because the district itself, along with some of its schools, accept Title I funds under the No Child Left Behind Act. That act stipulates that schools and districts receiving Title I funding must meet state-defined Annual Yearly Progress — or AYP — goals among each of their statistically significant subgroups. These groups are defined by race, socioeconomic status and disabilities, among other criteria.
In order to get out, the district must either hit all of its subgroup AYP targets for two years running, or make significant overall gains across the board for two consecutive years.
The latter of these options, known as "safe harbor," occurs when a school or district improves overall test scores by more than 10 percent from a previous year. Two district schools, Monta Loma and Theuerkauf, which would have entered their third year of program improvement, qualified for safe harbor status thanks to the latest test scores. If both schools manage to qualify for safe harbor next year, or if they can hit all of their standardized testing goals among all their subgroups, they can get out of program improvement status.
But in a move district trustee Stephen Olsen called "ironic," parents of 62 students pulled their kids from Monta Loma and Theuerkauf shortly before classes began this fall. Under the No Child Left Behind rules, the district is obliged to honor the transfer requests. For Olson, the irony lay in the fact that the 62 students that left those two schools were likely the most mobile and most socio-economically advantaged. By losing those students, Olson said, the two schools are likely doomed to do even worse on test scores in the coming school year.
It's another pitfall of the current rules surrounding Title I funds — one which Lairon hopes will be changed soon.
The problem, Lairon said, is that those targets rise every year. By the 2013-14 school year, schools receiving Title I funds will be required to score proficient in 100 percent of all of their subgroups. If the No Child Left Behind rules don't change by then, Lairon said, all schools receiving Title I funds will be in program improvement.
"We want to do better; that is our goal," Lairon said, noting that she did not want to make excuses. But, "when everybody gets into program improvement, what's the point?"
Overall, Lairon said, she is happy with the improvements made in the district's academic performance index (API), and with Monta Loma and Theuerkauf.
"We are proud of the fact that our two schools made AYP that were in program improvement," Lairon said.