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April 03. 2012 10:01PM

Official: Tests, not schools, are failing

CONCORD— With 71 percent of New Hampshire schools failing to make the grade, the state's top education official on Tuesday gave an explanation used by students since education began.

She blamed the test.

“Over 70 percent of schools and 65 percent of districts failed to make (Adequate Yearly Progress) in 2012. This is ample evidence that the accountability system is broken, not that the vast majority of schools in New Hampshire are failing,” said Education Commissioner Virginia Barry.

Barry made her remark in releasing the 2012 report on Adequate Yearly Progress. Based on student test scores, it judges whether schools and districts have reached benchmarks under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

For years, educators have complained about the law, which requires student test results to reach targets in reading and math tests. The targets apply not only to the student population as a whole, but certain subgroups of students, including Hispanics, blacks, the disabled, and students who know little English.

If one subgroup doesn't score high enough, the entire school fails to meet AYP.

The state alone spends $3 million a year to administer the tests, said Tim Kurtz, director of assessment for the state Education Department. School districts spend millions more to prepare for the NECAP tests, he said. Administrators and principals received the AYP grades on Monday.

“It's a mixed bag,” said Dr. Phil Littlefield, superintendent of schools in Hooksett, Auburn and Candia. Some of his schools failed to meet AYP, while others did well.

“The subgroups continue to be a challenge for us. Our kids are doing OK in the aggregate,” Littlefield said.

But an advocate for the disabled said special education students are scapegoated all the time when it comes to AYP and test scores.

Richard Cohen, executive director of the Disabilities Rights Center, said he thinks the accountability system is good. Grades and even advancement can be subjective, but test results and graduation rates are a good measure of school performance, he said.

“It (AYP) is a reflection of how the schools are doing, not (special education students),” Cohen said. “It's not their fault that schools aren't making AYP.”

The gap between special education and other students can be closed with proper instruction and accommodations, he said. Students who struggle with developmental disabilities are excluded from the test, he said.

Littlefield said district officials and principals will make an effort to address shortcomings that AYP found in the five schools in his district. But he doesn't focus on subgroups.

“You have to develop strategies that meet the needs of all the kids,” he said.

In Whitefield, the four-school White Mountains Regional School District did well enough to lose the District in Need of Improvement status.

“We have spent a lot of time and a lot of effort in the last couple of years motivating students,” said Superintendent Harry Fensom. That included pep rallies before tests, adult buddies for students on the cusp of proficiency and class discussion about test strategies.

Except for the inclusion of special education students, he likes the system.

“It's a good test. It tells where our kids are,” he said.

This year's AYP results are similar to 2011, when 70 percent of schools and 64 percent of districts failed to make the grade.

A state school official said that Barry's comments do not mean that she is against the tests. Her complaint is how the results are used to grade the schools, Kurtz said.

By the 2014 school year, all students must improve, he said. That's not a reasonable expectation, Kurtz said.

“The details of the accountability system matter,” he said. “That's what's broken.”


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