School's first grade

Sunday, August 15, 2004

In 24 hours, school administrators across Missouri will sit down at their computers, type in a special password and access the future of their schools.

Flourish or flop? Parties or penalties? The questions that have bounced in local educators' minds since last spring's standardized assessments will finally be answered.

At Blanchard Elementary, Dr. Barb Kohlfeld's heart speeds up when she hears anyone mention MAP. M-A-P, three little letters that could mean big changes for Kohlfeld's school.

"We all feel incredible pressure from this because we want to be successful," Kohlfeld said. "We want to take pride in our school."

Blanchard and Jefferson in Cape Girardeau are the only two local elementary schools that did not meet new federal guidelines for student achievement on the Missouri Assessment Program tests in 2003. Falling short again on the 2004 test results, which will be released Monday, would mean paying for students to attend a better-performing school this year.

"We embrace accountability here. We're funded by taxpayer money, and we're under a lot of scrutiny. We accept that," Kohlfeld said. "But this concerns me greatly because in my opinion, this is not designed to help us. It's designed to punish, and that's just how we'll feel if we don't make it -- punished."

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, a federal education reform that went into effect January 2002, all public schools must meet certain proficiency goals -- known as adequate yearly progress -- on annual student assessments or face consequences that grow increasingly severe for each consecutive year a school fails to meet the progress goals.

The overall objective of this part of NCLB is that all students will score proficient or higher on state math and communication arts tests by 2014.

Not only must entire schools make adequate yearly progress, but certain student subgroups within those schools, determined by ethnicity, income and special needs, must also meet federal goals. All students take the same grade-level tests, with some modifications for severely cognitively disabled students and those with limited English ability.

Only those schools that receive federal Title I funding are subject to the consequences of not making the federal goals.

"Naturally, I'd like us to do well, and I really believe the kids will show progress," said Jefferson principal Mark Cook. "But regardless of how we score, we have to be driven by what's best for the kids. We're doing our best to educate these students, that's out job."

To make adequate yearly progress this year, schools had to have 20.4 percent of all students score proficient or higher in communication arts and 10.3 percent of all students score proficient or higher in math. The release of this year's scores comes on the first day of school for Jackson and just two days before the start of classes in Scott City and Cape Girardeau, leaving little or no time for analysis before students return.

Local administrators say when the scores become available Monday, they'll analyze them quickly to determine whether adequate yearly progress was met and then take the necessary steps to fulfill NCLB requirements.

The scores will not have much impact on Jackson or Scott City schools since the schools in those districts that did not make adequate yearly progress last year are not Title I schools or do not have multiple attendance centers. In a district with only one high school, for example, students do not have the option to transfer to another high school.

In Cape Girardeau, this year's scores carry more significance because of the two elementary schools that did not make federal goals last year. Those schools' officials will analyze the scores for mistakes to determine whether an appeal is necessary.

If no appeal is made, then the district will immediately send out explanation letters to parents in the impacted schools giving them the option to transfer their child to a school that did make adequate yearly progress. Parents will have around two weeks to decide if they want their child to transfer.

According to Cape Girardeau school superintendent Mark Bowles, if a parent decides to take advantage of the school choice option, a transfer application must first be completed. Depending on the number of students who opt to transfer, the district will prioritize students. Those with the lowest test scores and lowest incomes will be at the top of the transfer list.

"All of the impact depends on how many students are involved," Bowles said. "No matter how many there are, we'll have to provide transportation. Potentially, it could shift the population of our schools."

If the district does appeal the scores from a school that did not make adequate yearly progress, then parents will likely have to wait until the end of October before learning whether their child can transfer.

The state's timing in releasing scores promises to create disruptions, Bowles said. If parents decide to move children out of schools that don't meet federal goals, the students end up starting the school year in one building with one set of teachers and then going to another. The school switching could be made more complex by the appeals process.

"We don't want parents to choose to move their kids, appeal the scores and win, then have to move those kids back to the first school," Bowles said.

Officials at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said very few schools will be impacted by an appeal and are recommending that districts immediately offer the transfer option.

"There may be a period of uncertainty until all data is confirmed," said Jim Morris, director of public information with DESE. "Schools will know if the data is for real, and larger districts with multiple attendance centers have to be prepared to move forward with the transfers."

Morris said DESE has no way of determining how many families might take advantage of school choice, but in other states that have already issued 2004 scores only a small number participated.

At Blanchard, Kohlfeld and her staff will meet Monday afternoon to discuss the scores.

"If we don't make it, tears will flow and it will be a big setback," Kohlfeld said. "We'll be disappointed, but we'll recover quickly because students will be here bright and early Wednesday."

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