As superintendent of Falmouth public schools, Barbara Powers finds herself in an enviable but insecure position, heading a school district that currently meets all federal targets for academic improvement under the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

While 70 percent of Maine’s 608 public schools failed to make “adequate yearly progress” on standardized tests taken during the 2010-11 school year, Falmouth schools performed well above reading and math proficiency targets imposed by the U.S. Department of Education. Those targets have risen steadily since 2006 and now demand proficiency from 66 percent to 78 percent of students, depending on the subject and grade level.

Without intervention, U.S. school districts are hurtling toward a long-anticipated, statistical brick wall in 2013-14, when all students must be proficient in reading and math, including those in minority, special education and economically disadvantaged subgroups.

As proud as Powers is of her school district, she knows Falmouth will miss the 100 percent mark, despite its advantages as an affluent suburb of Portland, Maine’s largest city.

“It’s ludicrous,” Powers said recently. “We’re all going to be failing schools in the eyes of the federal government. It’s been a standing joke within the educational community and it’s been hard to get teachers anywhere to look seriously at the concept of making adequate yearly progress.”

To avoid hitting the wall, Maine is joining 33 other states and the District of Columbia in seeking a “flexibility” waiver for No Child Left Behind, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan invited states to seek waivers because Congress has failed to amend and reauthorize the act as recommended by a variety of stakeholders.

The Maine Department of Education, with help from Powers and other educators, is developing a new system to measure AYP — or adequate yearly progress, the federal term for annual academic improvement. The new measures would establish school-based targets that still meet federal guidelines. The application is due Thursday and is expected to be accepted.

The new measures, as well as state-sponsored interventions and rewards, would take effect this school year. They would be applied to scores on standardized tests taken in 2012-13, which would establish each school’s AYP status for 2013-14. Maine uses the New England Common Assessment Program test administered in grades 3 through 8 and the SAT administered to high school juniors.

Maine has already received a waiver, so it won’t have to use higher targets — ranging from 77 percent to 86 percent proficiency — to measure progress on tests taken during the 2011-12 school year, which will be the basis of 2012-13 AYP status results to be released later this month. The state will again use the 2010-11 targets, which ranged from 66 percent to 78 percent.

Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen says the No Child Left Behind law remains flawed, and he admits that the state’s new progress measures would still be complicated. And still, the law will really only impact about 450 schools that share Maine’s $51.2 million annual allocation of federal Title I funding for economically disadvantaged students.

But Bowen and other educators say the outcome of the new measures would be better, trading arbitrary, unrealistic targets that some schools never met, for school-based, attainable goals that would provide a meaningful assessment of improvement.

All schools would be expected to improve, they say, with the understanding that each school has different populations and different challenges.

“(No Child Left Behind) is badly built and Congress has been derelict in its duty to fix it,” Bowen said. “We’ve tried to make it less bad.”

The long-range hope is that Congress will pass a better federal education law soon, Bowen said, and Maine will establish its own state-based accountability measures to promote improvement among all schools according to nationally accepted learning goals.

In the meantime, under the proposed new progress measures, Maine schools would have to reduce their proficiency gaps by half in six years. For a school where 60 percent of students aren’t proficient in math, that number would have to drop to at least 30 percent by 2017-18.

Furthermore, the decline would have to be consistent each of the six years, falling by at least 5 percentage points annually. As a result, the number of students who are proficient in math would increase 30 percentage points, from 40 percent to 70 percent.

“This will allow each school to have its own targets, based on its own growth model,” said Susan Pratt, superintendent of Maine School Administrative District 40, which is made up of the Rockland-area towns of Friendship, Union, Waldoboro, Warren and Washington.

Pratt is working with Bowen’s staff to develop new AYP measures. Her district is one that has struggled to meet federal accountability targets. On 2010-11 standardized tests, three of five elementary schools in the district, along with Medomak Valley Middle School and Medomak Valley High School, failed to make adequate yearly progress, according to the state Department of Education.

“Right now, we have a fictitious target of 100 percent proficiency, which no one can reach,” Pratt said. “We want to establish a culture of school improvement around the state, because all schools need to improve, not just the (under-performing) ones. This makes the measures more realistic.”

Under the new measures, the lowest 5 percent of schools that fail to make AYP would be identified as “priority schools” if they receive federal Title I funding for disadvantaged students. They would be required to implement research-based improvement plans that focus on school leadership, instruction and environment.

Priority schools also would get assistance from state Education Department staffers and some additional funding, as some Title I schools do now. About $2 million — 4 percent of Maine’s $51.2 million Title I allocation — is available to help struggling Title I schools across the state, said Rachelle Tome, Maine’s NCLB Title I director.

The next lowest 5 percent of schools that fail to make AYP would be identified as “focus schools,” which would go through a similar but less intense improvement process, Pratt said.

High-progress and high-performance schools would be recognized as “reward schools,” which would be announced to the media, featured on the state Education Department’s website, profiled in the commissioner’s newsletter and tapped for school-improvement ideas.

Unfortunately, some educators say, Maine’s new progress measures, interventions and rewards only would apply to about 450 schools that receive federal Title I funding. Struggling schools that don’t receive Title I funding wouldn’t get extra help from the state and still won’t face any federal scrutiny if they fail to make adequate yearly progress.

“They don’t get the negative press and they don’t get the funding, so it creates greater inequity across the state,” said Gail Cressey, Portland’s No Child Left Behind coordinator.

Cressey noted that three of Portland’s 10 elementary schools — Hall, Lyseth and Presumpscot — were downgraded from “monitor” status to “continuous improvement” status last year. However, only Hall and Presumpscot parents were notified, as required by federal law, because those schools receive Title I funding.

As Maine’s largest district, Portland has wrestled with No Child Left Behind from the start, largely because of its socioeconomic diversity. Only three of the city’s 15 schools made adequate yearly progress on 2010-11 tests: Longfellow, Reiche and Peaks Island elementary schools.

While traditional high schools Portland and Deering haven’t made AYP for years, nationally recognized King Middle School and Casco Bay High School, which follow expeditionary learning models, also missed the federal targets.

Reiche Elementary School, in Portland’s West End, is a rare success story, making AYP after failing to meet federal targets in past years.

Portland officials recognize that such success could be fleeting, however, so they’re open to the new measures being developed by the state.

“The reality is, all of our schools won’t be making AYP if something doesn’t change,” said David Galin, Portland’s chief academic officer. “Many of our students and many of our schools are making significant growth, but they started so far below the (100 percent) target, they’ll never show progress the way things are now.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]