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State lowers test standard to meet federal guidelines
One-hundred percent of all students proficient in math and communication arts by 2014 -- not many educators in Missouri or anywhere else think it's a goal that will likely be achieved in the next decade.
But that's exactly what the U.S. Department of Education now expects of public schools, and Missouri's department of elementary and secondary education is among those in many states that lowered standards this year to help schools reach that goal.
"I think we're trying to balance the very high ideas and goals of No Child Left Behind with trying to make expectations realistic enough that schools may actually have a chance to achieve them," said Jim Morris, director of public information at Missouri's state education department.
More than half of Missouri's 2,000 schools failed to score high enough to make adequate yearly progress on last year's Missouri Assessment Program tests in math and communication arts, a requirement under the No Child Left Behind Act.
This year, state officials anticipate more districts meeting that goal due to some changes in the way adequate yearly progress is calculated. Under the federal act, schools must have a certain percentage of students scoring proficient or higher in math and communication arts each year, with that percentage increasing annually until it reaches 100 percent in 2014.
For the 2004 tests, which were administered last spring, state officials opted to add a 95 percent confidence interval -- a statistical margin of error -- to adequate yearly progress calculations, thus making it more likely schools will meet the annual score goals.
Local administrators said while the changes may not impact their own schools too much, they welcome them as a sign that the improbability of having 100 percent of all students proficient in the next 10 years is being recognized.
"That 2014 date, I think most people have come to realize that it's not possible," said Dr. Rita Fisher, assistant superintendent in the Jackson School District. "Cognitive ability in students isn't something you change, but what the law has done is change our focus to believe that every child can succeed."
This year, Missouri schools were required to have 20.4 percent of all students scoring proficient or high on the communication arts tests and 10.3 percent proficient or higher in math to make adequate yearly progress. Not only must an entire student body at a school make adequate yearly progress, but individual subgroups of students must all meet the percentage requirement.
For example, if 20.4 percent of all students at a school scored proficient or higher, but only 18.5 percent of special education students were proficient, the school does not make adequate yearly progress. However, there must be a certain number of students in a subgroup for it to count toward adequate yearly progress.
Last year, a school had to have 30 members of a particular subgroup within a grade level for that group to count toward adequate yearly progress. For this year's test, the state raised the group size to 50 for special education and limited-English proficiency students.
"I know the subgroup change is one a lot of districts were pushing for," Fisher said. "I think these changes are bringing NCLB into something that's reasonable and attainable."
Also in time for the 2004 tests, the U.S. Department of Education announced a softer standard for the most severely disabled students in response to widespread controversy over special education testing. Initially, all special education students were held to same standards as nondisabled students.
Under the new rule, the most severely cognitively disabled students can take an alternative test designed just for their abilities, instead of the same test other students take.
As for students with limited English, an aide is provided to help read parts of the test that are hard to understand.
Dee Beck, coordinator of federal programs with the state's education department, said her office has not received any criticism from Missouri educators regarding the changes.
"There have been a few associations at the national level that have looked at it and wondered if it was a good idea," Beck said. "The changes might mean a few more schools make it this year, but not a great deal. And we're still counting those groups of children in overall totals, they're not being left out."
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