Community News — 19 August 2010
Public schools flunk federal tests but narrow racial disparities

School officials see some progress, but plenty of room for improvement in the federal governments annual report card after Alexandria failed to make the grade for a fourth consecutive year.

Seven of the citys 19 public schools reached the increasingly tougher Adequate Yearly Progress standards mandated by the 2001 No Child Left Behind act two less than last year. The city’s two middle schools, Francis C. Hammond and George Washington, failed to make AYP despite making the cut in the 2008-2009 school year. 

Alexandria City Public Schools also flunked as a system, though the division remains accredited by the Commonwealth, which uses the same standardized test.

The state education board in Richmond issued warnings to Jefferson-Houston K-8 School for its poor English and math scores when it released the results on August 12.

Still, Superintendent Morton Sherman believes there are plenty of bright spots in the report, including improved math and reading scores, higher attendance and graduation rates, and a narrowing of the achievement gap between white and minority students.

We know as a school division that we made progress over the past two years, Sherman said. This school division for a long time lived by averages rather than looking at the whole range. They looked at minimal expectations, like accreditation or making AYP or a baseline score rather than at a goal for all of the kids. That expectation issue is something weve begun to change, but it doesnt happen over night.

Though shrinking, the lingering achievement gap between white and minority students remains a concern for school officials. While the percentage of black and Hispanic students passing has increased since the 2007-08 school year, they still lag behind their white peers. 

This years results saw 81 percent of blacks and 78 percent of Hispanics pass the English portion as compared to 95 percent of white students. The gap is similar for math: 92 percent of white students passed as compared to 73 percent of blacks and 72 percent of Hispanics. Its a shameful reminder of Alexandrias historical blind spot for achievement gaps, Sherman said.

Weve allowed gaps in achievement to continue and it could be for any number of reasons, he said. If we continue to do things weve always done were going to get the same result and therefore we must change what we do. We must look at closing the gaps in all kids, to make sure all of our kids achieve at high levels.

Hoping to boost the school systems scores, Sherman wants to make public education a personalized experience for city students in the coming year. Children in grades six through 12 will create individual achievement plans with counselors and educators. Math and English teachers for those grades will see their class load drop from five to four a day and use the extra time helping students with their academic roadmaps, the superintendent said. 

Educators also will begin developing professional learning plans, laying out student achievement goals for their classes, according to Sherman. 

School Board Chairwoman Yvonne Folkerts called Shermans plan a common sense approach to meeting the NCLBs increasingly higher benchmarks, which will demand 100 percent of students to pass the standardized test by 2014. 

We know as a division we havent made AYP and we still have a lot of work to do and Im hoping this coming school year we continue to see significant improvements, Folkerts said. Weve got individual schools that are doing great, we have other schools that have their challenges and weve got to figure out what works best with those schools.

Though the AYP report card is helpful in pointing out areas in need of improvement, Sherman remains a critic of NCLB. It takes more than one test to determine a students academic ability, he said.

Its ideals are terrific in that every kid should do well, but it is an abject failure in terms of improving student achievement, Sherman said. Its like that expression, The beatings shall continue until morale improves.

Folkerts agreed, saying school officials and teachers cant afford to obsess about the AYP report. 

I really think we can [meet AYP soon] and I hope we do, she said. It is just a test and a label so lets make sure we dont lose sight of working in the classroom and making sure everyone is succeeding.

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