When a front-page headline says “More than half of District 2 schools fail federal requirements,” as Saturday’s Billings Gazette did, readers must wonder what’s wrong with local schools. Answering that question requires understanding what federal “Adequate Yearly Progress” pass-fail grades mean.
For starters, Montana has two sets of criteria for meeting federal No Child Left Behind requirements. One set is used for the largest 54 percent of Montana school districts and is based on one specific annual reading and math test, attendance and graduation rates, according to the Office of Public Instruction. The state’s smaller districts are evaluated on a broader range of measures gauged over more than one year. This smaller-school criteria was developed by Montana educators and generally applies to districts that have fewer than 30 students per grade level. Thus, Montana’s results for small schools and large schools aren’t comparable.
Furthermore, federal law requires that any school with more than 30 students in certain subgroups report results for that group. If any group (students with disabilities, those from low-income families, American Indian, Hispanic) doesn’t meet the federal requirements, the whole school gets a failing grade. Schools with fewer than 30 students in these groups don’t have to report on the group at all.
Most of the Billings schools that “failed,” and most of the Montana schools that “failed,” missed the mark with one or more subgroups of students. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the schools are bad. In fact, Montana reading and math and overall test scores increased substantially between 2003 and 2010, according to OPI.
None of the Billings public high schools or middle schools made AYP. None met targets for students with disabilities, although Castle Rock, Will James and Lewis and Clark met targets for students overall. Middle school students in all subgroups scored substantially lower than the general student population on the math test.
Math scores miss mark
The math scores fell further short in high school. Among all Billings 10th-graders, only 60 percent tested proficient; the standard was 68 percent. Meanwhile, the Billings 10th-grade reading score was 87 percent, exceeding the standard of 83 percent. Again, schools came up short on scores for students from low-income families and students with disabilities.
The federal standards for special-education students are perplexing. These students are in special education because they have specific disabilities that can hinder their academic progress. According to federal law, each special-education student must have an individual education plan that meets his or her needs and goals. Yet No Child Left Behind seeks to apply a one-size-fits-all standard to these young people with highly diverse needs and abilities.
So what do AYP results mean?
Billings Public Schools are doing a great job educating most students, and that’s something to celebrate.
But it’s not good enough. The children who aren’t testing at a proficient level won’t have the academic skills they need to graduate and get good jobs. That’s not acceptable.
The district needs to figure out why groups of low-income students are high academic achievers at some local elementary schools but not at others — and make changes. Billings needs to reach out more to Hispanic and American Indian students in K-12 to boost their graduation rates. Billings needs more effective teaching strategies for math. All children must receive support to succeed in school, graduate and be prepared for work and college. That’s what readers can glean from AYP.