Schools given new targets to meet

The waiver Connecticut received from the federal No Child Left Behind law earlier this year ushered in a new era in education accountability for the state complete with a different set of targets for schools to hit.

No Child Left Behind, which was passed in 2001, requires that all students in the country be deemed proficient academically by 2014. As the deadline drew closer with each passing year, it became apparent that the goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014 was an unrealistic one. State after state applied and was given a waiver from the federal mandate. Connecticut’s waiver was granted in May. The state’s application was based on several factors, including the development of an entirely fresh accountability system. That system is now in place.

“At the end of the day … it’s about accountability to the students, to the parents, and the communities that we serve,” said Region 16 Superintendent of School Tim James about the new system.

Connecticut’s system parallels No Child Left Behind’s roots and philosophy. Students, schools, and districts will still be measured by their success and progress on the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) and Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT). How achievement will be measured, the way failing schools are handled, and the targets for schools are where the state’s plan branches out in its own direction.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools are measured by the number of students who score at or above the proficient level in math and reading. Schools that don’t meet the standard or make enough “adequate yearly progress” any given year are labeled “in need of improvement” and face escalating sanctions for each year of failing to measure up.

Under Connecticut’s system, schools are measured by a point system based on student performance on all subjects tested — math, reading, writing, and science — at multiple levels of achievement.

The school performance index, as it’s referred to in the state’s system, is measured on a scale of 0 to 100. Students are awarded 1 point for reaching the goal and advanced levels, 0.67 of a point for proficient, 0.33 of a point for scoring a the basic level, and no points for scoring at below basic. The scores for each student are averaged out than all students’ scores are averaged together to equal the school’s overall score.

School improvement is measured by the number of students that score at a higher level than the prior year. Schools are given points for the number of students that move from any lower level of scoring on the spectrum, from below basic to goal, to a higher level, one year to the next.

“I think it’s good,” Naugatuck Assistant Superintendent of Schools Brigitte Crispino. “I think it gives credit to students that are making improvements.”

The differences between Connecticut’s system and No Child Left Behind continue when it comes to how schools are labeled and the repercussions for those failing to meet targets.

Rather than being referred to as “in need of improvement” the state’s system classifies schools as excelling (those that meet all the state targets), progressing (those that meet annual targets), transition (those that don’t meet annual targets), review and turnaround. The latter two classifications are for schools that struggle the most and score below 64 on the performance index. But rather than levy penalties against such schools, the state’s plan has built in support systems to help the school systems, including additional funding.

“It’s not a system that penalizes,” said Crispino, who described the system as a proactive approach rather than a reactive one.

The state has also scrapped No Child Left Behind’s lofty goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014 in favor of a more attainable target. Under the state’s plan, the target is for schools to have a performance index score of 88 and be halfway to that target by 2018.

Crispino said the state’s accountability system is designed to move districts and schools forward with very realistic goals.

Schools must also meet graduation rate targets, which will be factored into a school’s overall performance, and narrow the achievement gap over time.

Each school and district starts off with individual performance indexes based on past performance. The annual targets for any given school or district are factored based on how far away they start from the final target of 88. A school that is performing well has less growth to make while those that are underperforming face a much steeper climb.

For Region 16, which covers Beacon Falls and Prospect, the district’s performance index is starting at 85 according to Andrea Einhorn, curriculum director and assistant director of special education.

James said he expects Region 16 to perform well and hit the state’s targets. However, he added, the region is not satisfied with just reaching those targets.

James said he will go to the staff and ask them what the district’s targets are. He feels district should perform above the state’s targets.

Naugatuck is staring off at a much lower district performance index of 57.3, according to Crispino. But, she said, that figure is misleading.

Crispino explained Naugatuck’s performance index was factored when the state first applied for the waiver, prior to the most recent CMT and CAPT scores being released. In many instances, she said, Naugatuck’s scores on the 2011-12 tests have already exceeded the targets set by the state for the 2012-13 school year.

Naugatuck’s CMT score was 74.2 and the CAPT score was 74.2 last year and this year’s targets are 73.4 and 74.1 respectively, Crispino said.

“We continue to make improvements each and every year,” Crispino said.

The focus of the state’s system is squarely on accountability, in James’ eye. But, he said, it’s a system that is less than perfect.

It will still boil down to what district’s can afford to provide their students at a time when budgets are being cut and not keeping up with expenses, James said.

After watching a slideshow presentation on the new system late last month at a Board of Education meeting, Region 16 school board Chair Priscilla Cretella described the new system as a “huge undertaking.”

Cretella openly questioned whether urban school districts would be able to achieve the targets laid out for them.

“It takes a lot of hard work,” Einhorn answered.

In the end, Cretella summed up the state’s system as one that will help students.

“The kids will definitely benefit from this,” she said. “That’s the bottom line.”

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