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Schools Strive to Meet Federal Goals

Arlington schools concentrate on students’ individual needs, better preparing teachers and involving more parents.

In order to meet its goals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the Arlington school system must focus its attention and resources on the needs of individual students, provide more support for teachers and further involve parents, officials said at last week’s school board meeting.

Overall the school system posted stronger test scores last year, but failed to meet its targets for the third consecutive time. Eleven of Arlington’s thirty schools did not make “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP), though half missed their goals by only one or two indicators.

The standards for achieving AYP this year are more stringent than in the past: From each demographic group, 69 percent of students have to pass the reading exam, up from 65 percent last year, while 67 percent of students in each group must pass the mathematics exam, up from 63 percent in 2004-2005. Students in grades four, six and seven will be tested for the first time, joining their counterparts in grades three, five and eight.

“There will be increased challenges this year but nevertheless, I am optimistic we will do better,” said Superintendent Robert G. Smith. “We have done an analysis of our strengths and weaknesses and we are addressing those weaknesses.”

Arlington schools experienced greater difficulty with the reading exams last year than with math tests. Eight of the schools did not achieve AYP in reading, two in reading and math and just one in only math.

During the board meeting school officials asserted that the failure to meet the moving benchmarks masks the school system’s significant achievements last year. Arlington schools saw a 2 percent increase in its pass rate for all students on the reading exam and 20 percent rise in the pass rate for “limited English proficiency” students on the reading test.

THE MOST IMPORTANT factor in helping Arlington schools make AYP in the 2005-2006 school year is identifying the areas where individual students require the greatest amount of support and tailoring the curriculum to meet those needs, school officials said.

“We have to delve into each student’s scores, find the problems and work on them,” said School Board member Libby Garvey. “And that takes time and focus.”

The school system runs data analysis of every student’s test scores and provides that information to teachers. It is imperative that teachers then implement that knowledge in the classroom by paying extra attention to students who struggle, said Mark Johnston, assistant superintendent for instruction.

The school system is placing a greater emphasis on staff development and instructor delivery this year, especially for new teachers, in an effort to boost test scores.

“They are the best people to know what’s going on with the children and we need to do everything we can to help them,” Johnston said.

But responsibility for education extends beyond the teachers and administrators, school officials said. Getting parents more involved in their children’s education and scholastic activities is a crucial component to improving student performance. Schools need to hold more library and literacy nights to engage parents, said School Board member Mary Hynes.

“We have to make them understand what’s happening in the schools and share with them how they can help,” Johnston said.

Johnston, and other school officials, expressed frustration at the federal requirement’s sliding targets, because they can often obfuscate the school system’s progress. If a school improves by 8 percent in an indicator but still misses its target under AYP, it is branded as a failure when in fact it is a success story, Johnston said. For instance, Barcroft Elementary School has failed to make AYP for three straight years, but recently it was held up as an example of a school that consistently has been able to raise student achievement, Johnston said.

“The gains that are made are not really acknowledged,” he added. “There are many measures of success and [AYP] is just one of them.”

The community needs to place greater importance on the number of students reading at grade level, rather than the amount who pass an arbitrary federal requirement, Hynes said.

“To punish a school where in fact all but a very small group made significant progress is foolish,” Hynes said.