October 1, 2013

According to a report released early last week by the Iowa Department of Education, 64 percent of Iowa's schools missed a state objective that required about 94 percent of all students to score "proficient" in math and reading on state assessment tests. Next year, this federally mandated benchmark will rise to 100 percent - a standard local educators and administrators have repeatedly scorned as "unrealistic."

"I think everybody knew that, even way back when the legislation came out, they knew we'd get to this point," said Kreg Lensch, principal in the Glidden-Ralston Community School District. "We'd all love to have 100 percent of students proficient, but it's idealistic. It's not going to happen, and it's near impossible to attain."

In fact, the nature of the tests themselves prohibits it, said Jeff Kruse, shared superintendent for the Southern Calhoun and Rockwell City-Lytton community schools districts. Based on a bell curve, standardized tests are designed so a few students will always fall above and below the "proficient" average. While a school's students could perform perfectly for a year or two, the percentage would be not be maintainable over time, he said.

The benchmarks are the result of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, passed by Congress in 2001. In theory, schools would show consistent progress toward total proficiency until its 2014 deadline.

In reality, there isn't a public school district within a 30-mile radius of Carroll that doesn't currently have at least one school on an academic watch or school-in-need-of-assistance list.

"Obviously as trend lines get steeper, it becomes more and more difficult to reach them," said Carroll Community School District superintendent Rob Cordes. "We should certainly work toward proficiency for all students, but a better question is, what growth are they making? If a student starts in the fifth percentile and rises to the 25th percentile, he's not proficient, but he's still made incredible progress."

State officials agree. Though all districts should be '"striving" for that goal, said Iowa Department of Education spokeswoman Staci Hupp, the system is "flawed" and fails to account for growth and progress while expecting schools and districts to reach an "arbitrary mark."

"The consequences built into the law are very real," she said of the sanctions, which range from providing tutoring to firing teachers and administrators depending on how many years in a row a school or district has failed to meet standards.

"Beyond that we feel the designation of being in need of assistance doesn't tell you much about the district. It doesn't recognize that students come in with different starting points and it doesn't recognize growth with students who enter behind their peers," she said, adding that failure to acknowledge or reward this progress is "demoralizing to teachers."

As written, the federal law requires schools to show adequate yearly progress in math and reading. (The act also required schools to develop science tests by the mid-2000s, but did not set a hard proficiency goal in that subject.) Schools that do not show enough progress are put on a watch list. If they fail to show enough movement for a second year in a row, they are designated in-need-of-assistance, at which point schools receiving Title I funding are sanctioned.

In the first year, administrators must inform parents, set aside funding for professional development and write a plan to address weak-testing areas. In year two, schools must offer additional tutoring services. In year three, sanctions include replacing staff, curriculum, extending the school year or day and seeking expert advice from outside the district. In years four and five, restructuring is required; options include replacing staff or moving to private management, among others.

There is no single score a student must receive on the standardized tests to be considered proficient. Target levels vary by grade and content area, and the skills being measured exist on a vertical scale, increasing as the students progress through classes, explained Jay Pennington, information analyst for the Iowa Department of Education. The test results are also broken down by 14 subgroups in an attempt to ensure that needs of students of different ethnic backgrounds, poverty levels or disabilities are not ignored, added Pennington. However, even if only one subgroup misses the mark, the whole school is placed on academic watch.

"We believe in accountability, but there could be a fairer way," he said.

In Iowa, the annual progress formula includes additional factors such as graduation rates, growth shown among students who didn't meet proficiency and growth shown over two- or three-year periods. Despite these efforts, nearly half of the state's schools found themselves on the schools-in-need-of-assistance list this year, and many more found themselves on the watch list. For many local districts, the experience was new but not unexpected.

"We knew eventually the benchmark would get to a point we couldn't meet it, and this year it happened," said Brett Gibbs, superintendent of Audubon Community School District.

The rising benchmarks are even more challenging for rural districts with small class sizes, where one or two students account for a significant percentage, Gibbs added, echoing the sentiments of other local administrators. But, the "silver lining" is an opportunity to get people on the "same page with the same goals."

"Sometimes our efforts to work on reading have fallen on deaf ears," he said. "We may be above the state and national average, but we should always be looking to improve."

Kevin Fiene, superintendent of East Sac County Schools, is also viewing the schools-in-need-of-assistance process as an opportunity for school improvement.

"Personally I'm not overly hung up on being on a list as long as our students are making progress. To assume the playing field is level at all places and every kid should be treated the same way is asinine, frankly, " he said. "Continuous improvement is what we're looking for. A false standard some politician in some office developed isn't as important to me as seeing progress individually with our kids."

Many states have addressed the problems in the federal law by seeking a waiver from its requirements. Iowa is one of only a handful of states that has not received a waiver, partially because of the state Legislature's reluctance to tie teacher evaluations to test scores. Dan Muhlbauer, representative for west-central Iowa's House District 12, said that while he would be interested in looking at a waiver application, in many ways his "hands are tied."

"In rural Iowa we have great schools and students, but those who are the most challenged will never match the elite," he said. "Unless you bring the top down, it's tough to meet NCLB standards."

Some administrators worry that this inevitability of failure in the current law will actually become an excuse to ignore areas where student test scores are weak rather than focus on them. State officials have called for "significant revision" of the law, stating that it is "long overdue." But local educators aren't holding their breath.

"I don't see a way for them (Congress members) to come to an agreement about anything until after the next election," said Gibbs. Until then, he'll continue to work with the Iowa Department of Education to get his schools off the schools-in-need-of-assistance list.

His counterparts in other districts will do the same.

"There is nothing wrong with lofty goals, but you can't throw everyone into one basket," said Tom Ward, superintendent of IKM-Manning Community School District. "I guarantee we'll educate kids. There's nothing wrong with accountability, but it has to be realistic."