One Yardstick to Measure Learning Gains
As an educator, I have had the honor and privilege of working with many outstanding teachers, staff members, students, parents and community leaders.
I have also had the opportunity to work with, and respond to, many accountability plans designed to improve the quality of education for our most precious resource, our children. Throughout all of these accountability plans, the Volusia County School District has always been committed to rigorous academic standards for all students.
In 1999, with the beginning of the Florida A+ Accountability Plan, when only 25 percent of our schools received a grade of A or B, our school board unanimously adopted a goal that every Volusia County school would earn a grade of A or B by 2003. While many believed this goal was set too high, the Volusia County School District recognized that high standards are only met when significant goals are established. Rigorous standards for all students should be our common expectation.
Next week, Volusia County Schools will celebrate record-setting academic progress as measured by the Florida A+ Accountability Plan. This progress is based on the tremendous accomplishments of our teachers, students, parents and community. Never before have Volusia County students achieved at the level at which they are achieving today.
At the same time as the release of our school grades, the state will report the results of the federal No Child Left Behind accountability plan. Amazingly, this accountability system will report significantly fewer schools meeting the federal criteria for making adequate yearly progress than the state will report as A-B schools. What are we to make of the confusing and contradictory information that will appear in these two major government reports?
Keeping in mind that rigorous standards, academic accountability and focusing on the individual child are all expectations which I support, I believe that there are four specific areas in the federal Adequate Yearly Progress Plan that require attention. In fact, I believe that the Adequate Yearly Progress Plan, as currently implemented, is broken and needs immediate repair.
First, for any appraisal system to be effective, it must be valid. A valid assessment system is a system that measures what it is designed to measure. In the case of the Adequate Yearly Progress Plan, the federal government is attempting to measure the degree to which students learn to read and to do mathematics. The current plan is not valid for several reasons:
· Each of the 50 states selects its own test. Unfortunately, there is a tremendous variation in the degree of difficulty of each test. A test in Arkansas or Texas, for example, may be significantly easier than a test for Florida or Massachusetts.
· Each of the 50 states establishes its own passing score. A passing score in Mississippi may have a much lower standard than a passing score in Tennessee.
· Each state establishes how many students must be present in each sub-group to be included in the report. In Florida, for example, all groups of 30 students or more must be included in the test measurement. Other states use much larger groups in order to be considered.
· Fifty different state exams, 50 different passing scores, with 50 different criteria results in a lack of validity.
Second, the Adequate Yearly Progress Plan uses what is called a conjunctive or checklist system. This system is an all-or-nothing plan in which a school must meet every single criterion, or it is graded as if it met no criterion. For example, during the 2002-2003 school year, Timbercrest Elementary School was measured on 22 criteria, and met the rigorous guidelines in 21. Yet 21 of 22 criteria met is considered a failing grade in the federal No Child Left Behind program.
If Volusia County school teachers graded students in this fashion, our parents and community would be justifiably outraged. A school that meets zero out of 22 criteria is not performing at the same level as a school that meets 21 of 22 criteria. However, the Adequate Yearly Progress Plan gives both schools the same grade.
Third, the individual performance for a school under the current No Child Left Behind plan can be impacted based on the performance of one child from a population of a thousand students. Every child does count, and we should be accountable for every child. However, to assess a school of one thousand students or more based on one student being absent for one day of testing is misleading, inaccurate and inherently unsound.
Fourth, the current Adequate Yearly Progress Plan requires all students with disabilities to be reading at proficiency. However, the federal mandate for those same students to receive Exceptional Student Education Services requires those same students to have an academic deficit. In other words, the federal Adequate Yearly Progress Plan requires all ESE students to be at grade level, while the federal IDEA plan requires ESE student to be below grade level in order to receive educational services.
I obviously have significant concerns with the current No Child Left Behind plan. I do, however, believe in the goals of No Child Left Behind. I also believe there are reasonable, cost effective solutions that our policy-makers in Tallahassee and Washington should consider.
· Reduce the tremendous variation among state exams, state passing scores and the ability of the states to remove large numbers of students from the testing population. So long as this tremendous variation exists, no national data or national trends can be considered valid.
· Replace the current checklist system, which is not able to differentiate between schools' performance, with a more comprehensive system, such as the Florida A+ Plan which uses a comprehensive grading system similar to that used in our universities.
· Utilize learning gains as criteria for evaluating school and student performance. Florida has developed an outstanding learning gains model which recognizes student achievement and teacher performance, particularly for students who come to our schools with limited English proficiency, or students who come to school with learning disabilities.
· Finally, the federal government, in its No Child Left Behind legislation, called for significant and sustained increases in funding in order to achieve the goals of No Child Left Behind. Without adequate funding, children will be left behind.
I encourage all citizens interested in quality public education to work together so that the needs of all students can be met. All schools should be accountable for student performance; however, the accountability system used must be consistent, accurate, fully funded and valid. Our teachers and students deserve a meaningful measurement system; No Child Left Behind, as currently written, doesn't provide it.
Chris Colwell, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and School Improveme
Daytona News Journal
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