The news was mixed for school districts in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids corridor upon release of the state’s 2013 No Child Left Behind report card Tuesday morning.
The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City community school districts continued to be on the Districts in Need of Assistance list for student reading and math performance on the Iowa Assessments, while the Marion Independent and Clear Creek Amana Community school districts once again met grade-level proficiency.
The College Community School District, which was removed from Watch status for making Adequate Yearly Progress in math after missing the target, is on the Districts in Need of Assistance list this year for students’ reading scores. The Linn-Mar Community School District, which was on Delay status last year for making strides after failing to meet Adequate Yearly Progress in math, once again achieved reading and math targets and shed its in need of assistance designation.
“For us larger districts, because we have enough students to populate all the desegregated groups, we feel pretty proud of the work our administrators and teachers have done to do that,” said Linn-Mar superintendent Katie Mulholland of the school’s success. She attributed part of the gains to a recently adopted math curriculum and hopes to see the same with the district’s new reading curriculum.
District and school evaluations are based on how students in grades three through eight and 11 – overall and in various subgroups such as students of color, English Language Learners, special education students or those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches – perform on the preceding school year’s Iowa Assessments exams relative to national Adequate Yearly Progress goals. Those targets, which differ between by subject and grade, escalate annually until 2014 when 100 percent of students are expected to be proficient in both math and reading.
“It’s getting higher and harder to meet that requirement,” said Karla Ries, director of instructional services for the Cedar Rapids Community School District. This is the sixth year that the district has been in the in need of improvement category for math and the eighth year for reading.
“Wherever we’re at currently we want to move forward and continuously improve,” she said. “We can’t lessen our efforts. We have to keep working towards high quality instruction, rigorous instruction and getting that achievement level for students that we want to have.”
This year’s target grew to around 94 percent from 80 percent in 2011 and 2012 – the result of a one-year freeze the U.S. Department of Education granted the state.
As the benchmarks escalate, the list of Iowa’s schools and districts on the in need of assistance list has grown longer. Information from the Iowa Department of Education shows that this year 11.8 percent of the state’s kindergarten through 12th grade districts have the designation while 47.2 percent of schools are categorized as in need of assistance. Those are both upticks from the 8 percent of districts and 35.3 percent of schools on the lists in 2012.
Schools and districts that have large populations of students from low-income families receive Title I funding for programming to serve those learners. Those schools and districts face penalties if they fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress two years in a row, even if only in one subgroup. For most subgroups, at least 30 students must fall into it for a district to have to report their performance and may have to undergo consequences if those learners do not meet proficiency targets.
That leads to one of the most frequent criticisms of the No Child Left Behind framework, which is that it unfairly penalizes school systems that have larger and more diverse populations.
“In the smaller districts, they don’t even have enough of those students in those subgroups to report,” said Pam Ehly, curriculum director for the Iowa City Community School District. That district, which is on the in need of improvement list for the seventh year in both math and reading, is one of the fastest-growing, largest and most diverse in the state.
“When those subgroups don’t have achievement that is considered high enough, we have to report that,” she said. “It is what it is. We know those children need additional supports.”
Both Ehly and Ries commended their districts’ learners on continued growth, which is not reflected in the in need of improvement designation. Ehly said the district will do more screening to identify and intervene with struggling learners before they take the Iowa Assessments, while Ries praised Cedar Rapids buildings’ “comprehensive” school improvement plans.
As that 100 percent benchmark looms, Ehly advocated for an accountability system that compares students to their own past performance as opposed to looking at the same grade levels from year to year.
“I do think monitoring student achievement is important,” she said. “I’d like for them to be the same children.”
Mulholland said she believes 100 percent proficiency is statistically impossible for districts to reach, especially in light of “conflicting practices (and) some conflicting mindsets,” but in her mind that doesn’t make it a bad target.
“Any time you do really hard work, you always have a stretch goal,” she said. “In my mind 100 percent is a stretch goal but we’ll keep working toward it.”