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A look at how two Contra Costa County districts self-reported their state test results

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, October 12th, 2012 at 2:43 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district, San Ramon Valley school district.

In this country and state, school accountability is a moving target, with goals getting increasingly tougher to meet, as students are pressured to show proficiency on tests.

When test scores come out, school and district officials naturally want to celebrate their successes, while downplaying their failures.

This was very apparent Thursday, when the state released its Academic Performance Index, or API scores, along with data showing whether schools and districts met federal No Child Left Behind requirements.

The API data showed that the state and most districts made progress overall, with more than half reaching California’s proficiency goal of 800 on a scale of 200 to 1,000.

But the same data analyzed under the requirements of No Child Left Behind results showed that some children were still being left behind. This was news that the San Ramon Valley and Mt. Diablo school districts preferred not to highlight.

Both districts issued news releases to their communities that failed to mention they were identified for federal Program Improvement because some of their students did not make adequate yearly progress on standardized tests. Instead, they focused on the achievements of their top-performing schools, as well as those that made impressive gains from 2011 to 2012.

San Ramon’s message, which touted its very high API score of 921, stated, in part:

“These results continue to place SRVUSD as the 8th highest unified school district in the state and the highest among unified districts with more than 9,000 students tested.”

Superintendent Mary Shelton did, however, hint that some students were still struggling.

“It is amazing that a high-achieving district like ours can continue to improve,” she said. “While I am pleased to see that many of our subgroups improved again, a few did not, and we will continue to make that a primary focus in our classrooms.”

What Shelton didn’t say was that students in the following subgroups failed to meet federal requirements: African-Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, socioeconomically disadvantaged and special education students. Instead, San Ramon’s news release pointed out that the district’s English learners and African American students showed improvement, with API scores of 920 and 824, respectively.

But this improvement wasn’t enough to push African American students above the federal requirement that about 78 percent score proficient in English language arts and math. Even with their impressive API score, only 68.5 percent of African Americans in the district were proficient in English language arts, while 59.5 percent scored proficient in math.

Similarly, a community news release from Mt. Diablo schools Superintendent Steven Lawrence emphasized the district’s 7-point API improvement from 786 to 793. But, it didn’t mention that the district was entering its second year of Program Improvement for failing to meet 18 criteria related to adequate yearly progress. Lawrence did note, however, that about 61 percent of students districtwide scored proficient in English language arts and math, which was below the 78 percent federal requirement.

“While an achievement gap still exists for some of our subgroups,” he said, “our schools are committed to providing necessary support to ensure that every student achieves at the highest level.”

He did not say which subgroups he was referencing or reveal how they fell short.

While it’s commendable that the San Ramon and Mt. Diablo districts distributed some information about test scores to their communities, it’s unfortunate that they shied away from telling the whole story. A district’s Accountability Progress Report is similar to a student’s report card.

If your child’s teacher highlighted his or her accomplishments, while glossing over weaknesses, would you believe you were getting a balanced progress report? And would you feel you received the information necessary to help your child overcome weaknesses?

Although many educators criticize the No Child Left Behind law as being onerous, I haven’t heard any educator say that its ultimate goal isn’t one that every school should be working toward — ensuring that really, truly, NO CHILD should be left behind.

The only question, it seems, is: How can this best be accomplished?

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  • Anon

    No Child Left behind is a wonderful act.
    What the districts fail to understand is the programs they use for remediation are not research based with replicated results. You can look up any of the programs and research done at What works clearinghouse
    http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/
    Or the Florida center for reading http://www.fcrr.org/

    I am not sure how they pick the programs to use or why.
    We have many years of research showing that with the right kind of instruction ELL, Special Ed and socioeconomic kids can and will learn.

  • anon

    I’m sure I will piss some people off with my statements here, but I feel strongly enough about them to go ahead and make them (albeit anonymously).

    I am not a huge NCLB fan. Do I agree with the principle of NCLB that underperforming students (especially certain groups or schools in lower socioeconomic circumstances) deserve to have more consideration/resources thrown their way? Yes, but only up to a point. Do I agree with the premise of NCLB that every student is capable of being academically ready for college (because that is what I constantly hear) by the time they are 18 years old? ABSOLUTELY NOT! (Unless what it takes to be successful in college is MUCH lower than it was when I was there25 years ago) As a final NCLB comment, I would like to say that politicians get involved because it is easy to draw up crap like NCLB without providing funds to support it, and it looks great for PR purposes. If any politicians read this, I’d either like to see you quit your job and come join me in the classroom, or at least get more money for schools that ends up in the classroom, not in programs.
    I teach a high school college preparatory class. According to people I talk to about my job, I consistently have them tell me I must get the more motivated and more gifted/talented students. I understand their point. But, if that is truly the case, our state of education is in a truly sad state. I do not say this because the students are bad or evil as people, but because their basic academic skills (mainly referring to math and language) are REALLY bad. I teach at a school that is in a nice upper middle income area with good house values. I want to be clear that there are plenty of my students who have good solid skills, but over the past 7 years or so in particular, I find more kids taking classes that from a preparation perspective, they shouldn’t be in. But, in the educational world, especially through high school grades, no one is willing to draw the line on who should be in what class, particularly when it comes to college preparation. If you want to let anyone into a class, I don’t have a problem with that. But, if you’re going to do that and tell me that every kid that signs up for my class is supposed to make it through and perform on these tests in such a way that my school can have a good API score so the government feels I’m doing my job, I’m telling you that you must be smoking something. One of the reasons people say that college education works is that you either get the job done, or you get out, or at a minimum you don’t get to move on to higher classes. That is why only 25% of the population has at a minimum a Bachelor’s Degree. But at lower levels, if a student is performing at a low level, I find very few people who are willing to ask, “Is this student in over their head?” or “Maybe he/she should be in a different class.” What I hear is “What can we do for this student?” or “How can we get them through this class?” Now I will agree that attempts should be made to help struggling students out, but just because a student gets support doesn’t mean that the student will be successful, and some of that help should be dependent on the student showing effort (extra time or extra work). In my teaching experience I have had students that have “turned it around”, and they make for great stories, but if you ask me how many of them I have had, the number is very small. And, if I overhaul what I do just for that type of kid, I believe there are other kids who will miss out on opportunities that will enhance their ability to move forward in their education. But according to education “gurus” (who I find don’t really spend many years in the classroom before becoming a consultant) you can be everything for everyone. I wholeheartedly disagree.

    I would also like to comment about the students I see in school. I think this generation of kids has not been very well prepared for growing up. Instead of trying to instill and develop independence and initiative, and being taught that the world doesn’t revolve around them and that they are only 1 of a bigger class of students, many (if not most) have been “supported” (AKA- micromanaged/coddled) in such a way that when things don’t go well, the last place they will look to change things will be themselves. I think this idea of “I’m special” has totally been oversold to them. That makes for very poor students. These are the kids who say the system screwed them over when there were similar kids next to them that took initiative and put for the effort to get better, and ended up succeeding. I think that the system needs help, but if a kid came in wanting to learn, I still think there are plenty of opportunities and teachers who will be able to help them succeed.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Anon: I have heard that some schools may encourage students to take AP or honors classes that they aren’t really prepared for or excited about — just to make sure the school gets enough students in the class to fill the district’s minimum 20 student requirement. Then, the rationale is, the student could drop it if it’s too tough. But, is this really fair to the student? Wouldn’t it be better if the school was more concerned about properly placing each student than in filling class minimum requirements — possibly at the expense of some lower or average-performing students? Of course, if the school doesn’t get enough AP or honors students, then the few who are prepared for such a rigorous course also suffer it is cut. The district’s motto appears to be: Where students come first. But the question sometimes is: Which students?
    At a Northgate HS meeting for juniors and their parents, the college and career counselor advised students only to take AP or honors classes they were really interested in or knew they could get an “A” in. She said it’s better to get an A in a regular class than to get a C, D or F in an AP or honors class.

  • anon

    There are numerous factors associated with the idea of every student being successful. I think one of the initial issues would be to define “successful”. I don’t think the NCLB definition of every student being college ready is a realistic one, but that is how they have defined it, so I’m not going to get into that issue.

    So, if college readiness is the ultimate measure of success, I would say that if I had one theme to hammer home for schools it would be that of appropriate placement. And for me, if a capable student is appropriately placed in a class, they would be able to pass with a C or better. Now that isn’t a guarantee because there are lots of other factors involved, but if everyone does “enough” on their parts (teachers, students, parents, administrators, etc.) appropriate placement should have students at least passing classes without the need for “special treatment” or “extra” work or “intervention”. I would love to hear people’s thoughts about appropriately placing kids in classes. I think, especially in MDUSD with their “equal access” policy, essentially letting anyone take any class is a ridiculous policy, and a dismal failure. If that is to be allowed, failing students need to be told they need to get their act together (assuming they are capable), or they should be moved to a more appropriate class. I have rarely ever seen that done. And as far as letting pretty much any student into any class, I would say there is a significant percentage of students (and parents), who are not very realistic about what they think the student is capable of. I think there are too many students in many of our (MDUSD) higher level classes who take them thinking they’re just going to get a high grade because they have signed up. And to a certain extent, if a teacher of any class has too many people not being “successful”, I am pretty sure the first place the outside powers will point their finger is at the teacher. And I understand that. But, if, upon closer inspection, it is found out that the teacher is doing “enough” to provide instruction, then the finger needs to go away from the teacher and needs to go elsewhere. For my classes, most of my underperforming students have marginal (at best) skills coming in for the subject I teach. I am sure at a college level, they wouldn’t even be taking the class in the first place. But the feeling I get at the high school level is that I’m supposed to “make it work”. But, if I can “make it work” enough to get a passing grade, but they don’t test well on the state tests, then I’m still criticized for that. It is very much a no win situation.

    I would very much like to see a group of college educated people come to the high school levels and look at the kids abilities that are in the upper level classes and see what they think. There are many very good, capable students. But, there is a growing percentage of students that are not ready for the higher level classes, but they take them because “they look good” or “I’m going to be an engineer/doctor/computer programmer” and there is no discussion about whether this should happen or not. And if they think that in order to increase the performance of those weaker students they just need support, I want them to give that support, see how much time it takes (which has to be outside of school or else the class will suffer), and then contemplate how many “supporters” we need based on how many of those students there are. And remember that this will most likely need to be continuing support, not just a few meetings.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Here’s what Arne Duncan said today about the need for great principals to achieve great schools: “It’s the principal who shapes the vision, sets the tone, and targets the energy of the many people who run a school,” Duncan said. “It’s the principal who inspires, cajoles, and models the excellence he or she knows the school can reach.”
    Who are the great principals in MDUSD?