Rim County Middle School and the district’s alternative high school have both fallen short of rising federal standards established by No Child Left Behind, according to figures recently released by the state.
Schools that fail to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) under the federal law eventually face the prospect of a federal takeover — which would result in the wholesale firing of administrators and teachers and the hiring of what amounts to a turn-around crew.
Payson Unified School District Superintendent Casey O’Brien said unless Congress changes the rules, virtually all of the district’s schools will likely fail the federal standard eventually.
“That’s not a model that’s indicative of success: It’s a punitive model for schools,” said O’Brien.
O’Brien said the district’s struggle to meet the federal standard reflects both the steep rise in that standard and the impact of a dramatic increase in the number of low-income students in Payson schools as the economic downturn lingers.
The number of the nation’s schools that failed to make adequate progress increased 40 percent this year, due to a rapid rise in the federal standards after several years with little change. By 2014, the federal standards require every single student to pass the standardized tests of basic skills — even most special education students.
He said the number of students in the “low socio-economic” category based on family income now includes 60 percent of the students in the district. That mirrors a 50-percent increase in the number of students considered “homeless,” as a result of not living at home with either parent.
Rim Country Middle School Principal Will Dunman said the tests tracking student performance have helped schools get to struggling students quickly enough to make a difference. However, the required 10-percent increase each year in the number of students passing the AIMS test makes the standard unattainable, he added.
“It’s a little discouraging. But we have some great professionals at the middle school who know what to do. We just have to keep ourselves focused on that. We have to work smarter, not harder. We have to get in the lane and move forward.”
The middle school fell short in the number of lower-income students passing the math portion of the AIMS test, a state-developed test intended to ensure all students have adequate basic skills in math, reading, writing and science by the time they graduate. The federal No Child Left Behind rules accept different measurements in each state and, in Arizona, rely heavily on pass rates on the AIMS test. If any subgroup fails to make adequate progress, the whole school goes on what amounts to probation.
Congress enacted No Child Left Behind in 2001 in an effort to force schools to ensure all students mastered basic skills. The act resulted in a huge jump in federal education spending to about $54 billion annually. The program allowed states to set the standards initially, but will in the next few years result in establishment of national standards.
Advocates say that the standards have improved the performance of many students, especially minorities and low-income students, and provide a way for parents to hold schools more accountable.
Critics say that the act represents a huge power shift from local school boards and states to the federal government and has forced teachers to “dumb down” the curriculum and focus on just getting students to pass standardized tests.
Only a handful of schools have so far suffered the fate of a federal takeover under the terms of the act. That includes the high school on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, where former Payson High School Principal Roy Sandoval and Vice Principal Tim Fruth head up the turnaround effort.
This marks the first year the middle school has fallen short of the standard, mostly because the expected passage rate rose 10 percent this year from last year. It will rise another 10 percent next year.
The high school is already struggling with low passage rates on the AIMS test. The high school this year went from slightly above the state average to below the state average. Its overall ranking on state evaluation measures when from “highly performing” — the equivalent of a grade of B — to “performing,” the equivalent of a grade of C.
Meanwhile, the Payson Center for Success has for several years fallen short of the federal standard for making adequate yearly progress in both test scores and in graduating enough students within four years.
District officials say the inflexible federal standards pose a huge problem for alternative schools like PCS, where most of the students for one reason or another decided not to continue in the conventional high school setting. Often, the students at the alternative school have to make up missed or failed classes, which makes it extremely difficult to graduate within the standard four years, said O’Brien.
“The goal of PCS is to take students who have fallen behind and get them graduated. The good news is that we do a really good job. But if the four-year graduation rate is the threshold, then you don’t make adequate progress,” said O’Brien.
Dunman said students have reaped benefits from the federal reforms that stressed regular testing to spot struggling students and get them extra help as quickly as possible.
The district for the past two years has used the test to identify students who need small-group and one-on-one help with reading and mathematics. District officials said the “Response to Intervention” program has proved so valuable that the district decided to keep the program going this year, despite the loss of the federal grants that funded the launch of the program.
The district administers tests in reading, writing and math to determine which students have fallen behind. Each school site has a Response to Intervention coordinator, who then works to help those students catch up. Sometimes, that means one-on-one tutoring. Sometimes, that involves pulling students out of regular classes for small-group sessions. Sometimes, that involves helping the regular classroom teachers create groups and lesson plans to provide targeted help for the faltering students.
Dunman said the middle school will test 600 students this week for basic skills.
“We’re going to be looking at the math fluency component. We’re going to be looking at every student,” said Dunman.
The school will administer tests to track progress three times during the year. He said sometimes the tests reveal as many as 20 to 30 percent of students are struggling to master key areas of basic skills, like math fluency.
“Once we know where they are, we can look at a couple of different areas. Maybe we need to put them in a small-classroom setting with five or six students and an individual teacher. So maybe when we track those six students, there will be only one student in the group that’s still lacking. So we’ll do a different intervention,” said Dunman.