Home Education Navigating Standards: No Child Left Behind and the road to proficiency in Athens schools

Navigating Standards: No Child Left Behind and the road to proficiency in Athens schools

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More than a decade after the No Child Left Behind Act became federal law, 2014 marks a deadline: The initial target year for all American students to achieve proficiency in reading and math.

Like schools across the nation, Athens City Schools have yet to meet the 100 percent proficiency goal. But No Child Left Behind legislation has certainly made an impact.

“The standards have been set higher and we’ve adjusted to that,” said Carl Martin, the district’s superintendent.  Martin has been superintendent of the Athens City Schools for 20 years. He has watched the schools adapt to NCLB requirements, and although he won’t say the act was perfectly designed, he believes it spurred significant progress.

The Athens schools now operate not under NCLB standards, but under the standards of the Ohio Improvement Process, a program created by the state in 2012 after Ohio received a waiver from the federal government. This waiver was approved through a federal program designed to grant states more control of school standards and assessment. This waiver let states bypass federal proficiency goals and granted them reprieve from NCLB’s harshest punishments.

Ohio’s replacement program, the Ohio Improvement Process, identifies school buildings and districts failing to meet state achievement requirements and mandates certain programs and assessments if schools fail to boost their scores independently.

The Athens City Schools are currently working to improve under the OIP requirements. The Plains Elementary is the deepest in the improvement cycle, and currently tests all students every six to nine weeks to monitor their achievement. The tests are all standardized and state-approved, and when students receive low scores, teachers formulate individual improvement plans to aid in increasing their proficiency. All of the district’s teachers also assess their own performance throughout the school year.

The Athens schools may not operate under the same NCLB requirements they respected ten years ago, but that does not nullify the legislation’s lasting impact.  No Child Left Behind created a system of accountability and evaluation. Through state-designed standardized tests, NCLB requires schools to measure students’ annual progress in reading and math. Once scores are obtained, they are interpreted relative to student improvement.

Initially, if schools did not show adequate progress toward the 100 percent achievement goal, they were threatened with reduced funding, forced reformulation of staff and, eventually, closure. Schools deemed inadequate were required to pay for parents to send their children elsewhere.

This pressure to produce high test scores was designed to push schools toward the total proficiency goal. Schools would be forced to improve their curriculums. If they did not, students would presumably transfer to better schools. No Child Left Behind provided funding for tutoring services that all students could use to boost their knowledge and test scores.

Critics of the act say the NCLB system is far too reliant on test scores and that its punishments – at least initially – were draconian.  By threatening to diminish funds and shutter school doors, opponents say NCLB created a nation obsessed with tests.

Associate Superintendent Tom Gibbs said that while he supports high standards and appreciates the guidelines of the state’s newly implemented Common Core, he worries that standardized testing has become excessive.

 “My greatest concern is that we’ve created a system within testing that has made a drastic turn just to become a weight,” he said. “It’s pulling us down.”

Although Martin believes the state and national standards have improved teacher preparedness, instructional methods and school-to-home communication, he agrees that the amount of testing required by the state is hard to balance.

“Right now in general there is so much testing that it’s just a monumental amount of work, time and regulations,” Martin said. “Far too much testing severely impacts the ability of teachers to fully concentrate on daily lessons and classroom work.”

Both Martin and Gibbs agreed that unlike some state schools where teachers base their curriculums around specific standardized assessments, Athens schools do not merely teach to the test.

“Right now we’re just trying to make sure we’re meeting all the requirements while continuing to try to facilitate a nurturing community,” Gibbs said. He said he believes that as long as the schools provide a rigorous curriculum, the students will perform well on assessments. His goal is to create balance. “I don’t want to be a testing factory,” he said.

When the state initiated the Ohio Improvement Process, it began to assign letter grades to schools based on up to ten distinct factors including high school graduation rates, standardized test scores and yearly progress of different subgroups toward long-term state goals.

Unlike the letter grade standards for students, the state does not equate 60 percent proficiency with a passing grade. If less than 80 percent of students are meeting proficiency standards on state tests, the school will receive a failing grade in that category. This bar has been raised. Initially, only 75 percent of students were required to meet standards for schools to pass.

Athens schools have received varying grades in this category. Overall, the district received a D for the 2013-2014 school year. Athens High School received an A, but The Plains Elementary received an F.

Martin and Gibbs said these ratings should be taken with a grain of salt.

“As with any statistic you have to really dig deep and see what’s exactly going on,” Martin said. He said the state grades can be useful but that he also likes to look at trends in achievement over three to five years in order to better evaluate district progress.

Gibbs, who will become superintendent of the district when Martin steps down in transition to retirement next year, said the largest challenge the schools face in effectively adapting to standards is the layering of statewide programs that emphasize testing and requirements.

In addition to the Ohio Improvement Plan, the state has enforced the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, a kindergarten readiness assessment and the Common Core. Gibbs said he does not blame any of these standards individually and supports their ideology but said he believes these standards combined can put stressful loads on students and teachers.

Gibbs has testified to state legislature twice this year asking for a reduction of assessment requirements. He said he believes the Athens City Schools will continue to achieve regardless but hopes that over time the state will develop a more balanced approach to promoting and evaluating achievement.

“There are certainly a lot of things that aren’t tested, and those things are, to me, the things that make the school a much more positive environment,” he said. “I am hopeful that if we can get parents and school officials to talk to their state legislators, we can dial this back a little bit and get it back to a spot that makes sense.”

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