COLUMBIA — Grant Elementary School was the only public school in Columbia to meet federal benchmarks this year under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Under newly released preliminary standardized test scores for 2011, Columbia Public Schools as a whole did not meet the benchmarks, known as "adequate yearly progress," or AYP.
Still, Superintendent Chris Belcher and other district leaders sounded a note of optimism Wednesday because district scores continue to go up overall.
Parkade Elementary School, which has fallen short for the fifth year and already underwent major sanctions such as restructuring, met AYP in three subgroups of students — up from none met last year.
"That's tremendous progress," district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said.
The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act requires that students, schools and districts nationwide reach an increasing level of skill each year in communication arts and mathematics. By 2014, all are expected to be 100 percent proficient. States determine the yearly benchmarks.
Missouri measures academic success using the Missouri Assessment Program, or MAP, and End-of-Course, or EOC, assessments for high schoolers. Results for the 2011 MAP and EOC tests were being released to the public Thursday by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
This year, 75.5 percent of Missouri students — in subgroups within schools such as white, black, Asian or Hispanic — were expected to be "proficient" or "advanced" in communication arts and 72.5 percent in mathematics.
In the Columbia district, 54.7 percent of students were proficient or advanced in mathematics. That's an all-time high, up from 50.9 percent in 2010.
Fifty-five percent of students were proficient or advanced in communication arts — the same as last year, which was a new high then.
*Grant met the communication arts target after the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education applied a "confidence interval" to the data to account for errors; Grant met the mathematics target due to student growth over time. Some other schools had confidence intervals applied, but Grant was the only school that met the standards for all subgroups in both categories. All subgroups must pass for schools to meet AYP.
District talks about what works
At a media briefing Wednesday, Belcher said his report on the new results would be a lot like the weather report that day: "It's a lot better than it was yesterday," Belcher said, referring to a record-setting high temperature of 108 degrees in Columbia.
But the district could still stand to see improvement, he said.
Belcher said that with $20 million in budget cuts in the past three years, he is proud to see standardized test scores in Columbia trending upward. Chief Academic Officer Sally Beth Lyon said her initial reaction to the results was positive.
Asked what schools do to improve their scores, Belcher said the district has been using the same methods across the board to improve performance, including new math and language arts curricula, technology pilots and additional training in various fields.
“Every one of our schools is really focused on the same things — excellent classroom instruction of a good curriculum and teachers using ongoing assessment rather than one big assessment to judge how the students are doing," Lyon said.
Both she and Belcher stressed the importance of students in need receiving more time with instructors to boost their achievement. Lyon said the district has created a spring break reading camp, focused on the summer school program and provided tutoring.
Baumstark said the change at Parkade is the result of programs such as Response to Intervention, which is tailored to individual students, and team-teaching partnerships with the colleges and university in Columbia.
In assessing AYP, all subgroups must be proficient or advanced, or the progress benchmark isn't reached. Subgroups are: white, black, multiracial, Asian, Hispanic, American Indian, Individualized Education Program (students with disabilities) and Limited English Proficiency.
If schools don't meet AYP, some will face sanctions.
Title I schools, which are those in which at least 40 percent of students come from low-income households, receive federal money. In Columbia, they are Alpha Hart Lewis, Blue Ridge, Cedar Ridge, Derby Ridge, Parkade, Benton and West Boulevard elementary schools and Douglass High School. If they fall short of AYP, they face a series of increasingly drastic sanctions.
Non-Title I schools do not face sanctions for failing to meet AYP, Baumstark said.
'Proficiency is not an exact science'
Belcher is skeptical that the 2014 goal of the No Child act can be realized, in part because he thinks proficiency as the law defines it is a narrow way to measure student abilities.
“Proficiency is not an exact science,” he said. “The difference between proficient and basic could be four points. It's not fair with the worry we have as parents.”
Belcher said individual student growth over time is a better indicator of student success, rather than students' ability to reach the proficiency marks.
Beyond that, the bill has been costly to the district, he said.
Columbia Public Schools has spent about $500,000 in the past three years to try to comply with No Child. Money has gone toward busing transfer students as well as support services for those schools deemed as needing improvement.
Students whose schools face sanctions can transfer to schools that make AYP, but Belcher said that as the progress standards continue to go up and the number of schools able to meet them goes down, fewer schools are available to accept those transfers and, within those schools, fewer spaces are available.
Right now, the only schools that can accept transfers are Midway and Two Mile Prairie because neither school is under sanction and each has space available. Grant is full, Baumstark said.
Students wanting to transfer must apply to the district, Baumstark said. The district must provide busing, unless the school to which the student transfers no longer meets AYP.
No matter its shortcomings, the No Child Left Behind Act is not likely to change in the near future, Belcher said.
"Politically, it’s not going to play for the next two years,” Belcher said.
He said that although many thought President Barack Obama was going to revise No Child, it isn’t showing up on the agenda, and that the secretary of education has indicated the department intends to let the bill run its course, possibly coming up with waivers to help schools make it through.
Until then, Belcher said he intends to continue with the measures the district has been implementing to keep the scores going up.
“I think we’re in good shape," Belcher said. "Eighty-three percent of schools across the nation are in the same boat as we are, so something’s got to give."