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Most East Texas school districts, campuses fail to meet federal standards

By Christina Lane
Aug. 11, 2012 at 11 p.m.


Dozens of East Texas school districts and hundreds of campuses failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress standards set by the U.S. Department of Education.

The federal report card released by the Texas Education Agency showed all Gregg County school districts except White Oak ISD failed to meet standards.

Statewide, 72 percent of school districts and 48 percent of campuses failed to meet the standards.

Many area school superintendents are criticizing the federal accountability standard, saying it is "a moving target" based on one test that doesn't adequately measure student performance.

And some superintendents said they will no longer allow the No Child Left Behind Act and their federal accountability rating to say how well children in East Texas are being taught.

"We're not going to let (No Child Left Behind) and AYP determine whether we are satisfied with whether our children are on track or not," said Tatum ISD Superintendent Dee Hartt.

White Oak ISD Superintendent Mike Gilbert voiced equal frustration with the snapshot assessment.

"A test on one day does not give you the picture of what's going on in White Oak Independent School District," Gilbert said. "And, a snapshot determines AYP in a lot of areas."

The decrease in the number of schools and districts meeting AYP came at the same time Texas put in place a new assessment for students, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR). The new test, which is replacing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), was used in determining the AYP results this year.

Texas requested to waive AYP ratings this year as it did state accountability ratings, but the federal Department of Education denied the request.

"We have to educate all children, and we're going to educate all children," said Gladewater ISD Superintendent J.P. Richardson. "But the federal government should not be coming in here and telling us what our kids need."

<strong>The 'target'</strong>

Adequate Yearly Progress - or AYP - was based on graduation rates or attendance rates depending on grade level, performance on the math and English language arts TAKS for 10th graders and performance on the new math and reading STAAR for students in third through eighth grades.

No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2002 by President George W. Bush as a means to guarantee accountability nationwide. The goal of No Child Left Behind, referred to as Nickelby, is to have 100 percent of students pass by 2014.

Since 2010-11, AYP standards have been elevated from 80 percent to 87 percent passing for reading and English language arts and from 75 percent to 83 percent passing for math.

Gilbert said the federal accountability standards "significantly exceed" the state accountability standards for an academically acceptable rating based on the state system that existed in 2010-11. The state did not set a new accountability system for 2011-12 in conjunction with the new STAAR.

In 2013, federal AYP standards again will increase to 93 percent in reading and English language arts and to 92 percent passing in math. By 2014, every school and every district is expected to have 100 percent of its students passing both tests. East Texas superintendents said that expectation is "unrealistic."

Additionally, at least 95 percent of students in a school or district must have participated in taking the test, and there must have been at least a 75 percent graduation rate or a 90 percent attendance rate.

<strong>The 1 percent</strong>

In the case of Gladewater ISD, there were students who passed the state assessment who could have helped the district reach the federal mark, but their scores were excluded.

The U.S. Department of Education set a cap that said only 3 percent of a district's or school's students taking a modified or alternate assessment would have their scores counted. About 10 percent of Gladewater ISD students qualify to take a modified or alternate assessment, said Connie Player, Gay Avenue Primary School principal and former curriculum director.

Only 1 percent of a district's students can take the STAAR alternate. Assistant Superintendent Mitzi Lloyd said children at the Truman W. Smith Children's Care Center fill up Gladewater ISD's 1 percent.

The Truman W. Smith's Children's Care Center provides in-patient care for children with severe mental or physical handicaps. Many of the children at the center are unable to write or speak. Many of them are tested and respond to questions in which they blink their eyes, lift their hand or shrug their shoulders, Lloyd said. Some of them can be non-responsive, she added.

"For these kids, the priority of the day may be about survival," Lloyd said.

Richardson, Lloyd and Player said testing these students is not fair to Gladewater ISD or to the children. And while those children are being taught, the focus of their teachings is much more basic - things such as how to hold a fork, not chemistry or algebra, they said.

Those students fill up the cap that could be used for other students using a modified exam.

Gladewater ISD had 19 students who passed the state assessment whose scores were counted as "non-proficient on AYP because of the cap," Richardson said.

<strong>The local performance</strong>

Longview, Pine Tree and Spring Hill school districts each missed the mark on AYP. All three districts failed to meet the performance standard in math, and Spring Hill also failed to meet the mark in reading performance.

Of the 12 campuses in Longview ISD, Longview High School, LEAD Academy High School and Hudson PEP Elementary School met accountability standards.

In Pine Tree ISD, ExCel High School of Choice, Pine Tree Elementary School and Pine Tree Primary School met AYP, while the high school, middle school and intermediate school each missed the mark.

"In transitioning to the new accountability system (the STAAR test), the standards in the new system are higher and the expectations for students are greater," said Pine Tree Superintendent T.J. Farler. "At the same time, the NCLB requirements for AYP continue to increase. Overall, I am very proud of the achievement our students made this first year of STAAR. Both our students and teachers worked hard and showed great effort to meet the new expectations."

Assistant Superintendent Nate Carman said campus and district improvement plans are being revised to include strategies, use of resources and new personnel to focus on the areas of needed improvement.

In Spring Hill, the intermediate and primary schools met AYP standards, while the high school and junior high missed it.

Across East Texas, White Oak, Hallsville and New Diana ISDs met AYP.

Hallsville High School missed AYP only in math, and all of the district's other campuses made the grade. The district used remediation programs, individual tutorials and focused on student success to help meet the requirements, officials said.

"Each staff member is focused on high level instruction for all students. That is why we are here," Superintendent Jim Dunlap said. "While we continue to meet the academic needs of each child in Hallsville, we have to pay attention to arbitrary standards set by the federal government. But that is not our real focus. Children are."

Hallsville's North Elementary School, a new campus, was not evaluated.

Tatum ISD was rated recognized (the state's second-highest accountability rating) five years in a row, but missed AYP at the district level and at all campuses this year.

Hartt said the problem, not just for Tatum but for all schools, lies in two sets of standards simultaneously increasing.

AYP standards have increased and will continue to do so until 2014 when the standard becomes 100 percent passing. Meanwhile, the state is implementing a more rigorous test.

"They've made the hurdle much larger than it has been," he said.

However, Hartt believes Tatum ISD is on track in regard to its student success. He believes students will improve on their STAAR performance next year from this baseline year.

"But that is not the only measure of our success," Hartt said.

<strong>The snapshot</strong>

One test given on one day determines the federal accountability rating of a school district, but superintendents said one day isn't enough to see progress, and one test can't measure student achievement.

Hartt said it is about so much more.

"We may measure the safety of our students, we may measure the happiness of our students," he said. "We're going to look at academic growth from year-to-year, but we're also going to look at other things we provide our boys and girls."

Gilbert said White Oak will review its data and look at ways to improve student performance and teachers' delivery of instruction, but reiterated that meeting AYP won't be the measure of his district's success.

"We didn't make AYP in math at the high school, but that's a snapshot of one day," Gilbert said. "It's not a measure of the success of White Oak Independent School District."

Looking toward the future, Carman of Pine Tree said getting 100 percent of students to pass a standard assessment will be difficult.

"We will continue our expectations for student success not just in the grades that have an accountability test, but in all grades," Farler said. "We believe that high quality learning experiences in student-centered classrooms is important from prekindergarten to grade 12."

Hartt said superintendents realize the importance of accountability and raising testing standards, and he isn't opposed to that.

"Once you reach one hurdle, you move the bar. We're comfortable with that," he said. "What we're not comfortable with is using that as the sole measure of whether our students are successful or not."

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