Each year since the implementation of No Child Left Behind legislation, the Iowa Department of Education has released a comprehensive report card detailing the performance of Iowa students on annual standardized assessments. The 2012 State Report Card for No Child Left Behind was released on Sept. 28, providing Jasper County educators, as well as those around the state, data that can be used to tailor academic instruction within schools.
NCLB performance is determined by the percentage of students performing at a proficient level. “Proficiency” as defined by the State of Iowa requires individual students to score above the 41st percentile on annual assessments. Of the five school districts in Jasper County, three met every academic trajectory set forth by No Child Left Behind: Lynnville-Sully, Baxter and Prairie City-Monroe. Students enrolled in Colfax-Mingo’s schools met proficiency standards in nearly every category, only missing NCLB’s benchmarks in middle school reading and resulting in Colfax-Mingo Middle School being designated a School in Need of Assistance. The Newton Community School District, however, did not fare as well as other local school districts in the most recent assessments.
Newton Senior High School’s scores failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress — NCLB’s measure of student improvement — in mathematics, while Basics and Beyond Alternative High School, Berg Middle School and Aurora Heights Elementary School missed requirements in both reading and mathematics. As a result, the Newton Community School District has been designated as a District in Need of Assistance, third year (DINA-3), by the Iowa Department of Education.
“We’ve been at DINA-2 status for several years now but didn’t make it to the third year because, prior to the Iowa Assessment, we were showing some pretty good growth at the middle school.” said Wendy Parker, director of secondary education for the Newton Community School District.
The 2011-2012 academic year marked the first usage of the Iowa Assessment in place of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills as the state’s standardized assessment tool. Following the switch in tests and subsequent difference in material found on the Iowa Assessment, elementary and middle school student performance dipped throughout the state. For instance, 74.4 percent of Iowa’s eighth graders met reading proficiency standards in 2010-2011 after steadily improving from 70.4 percent in 2007-2008; in this past year’s assessment, however, the state average for eighth-grade reading fell to just 64.9 percent.
“One of the interesting comparisons you can make is that you can see [the dip in scores] is a systems effect and not an isolated school effect,” said Jim Gilbert, director of elementary education for the Newton Community School District. “When we drop and the state drops, I see it more as a systemic issue.”
In addition to the implications that lower scores statewide will have within individual school districts, Gilbert explained that the data found in this year’s NCLB Report Card will make political waves as well.
“This is going to put some pressure on the state legislature because last year Iowa was writing a waiver and it was denied based on political issues surrounding teacher pay, and not at the crux of student learning,” he said “The waiver, in and of itself, is to move the emphasis off of reaching a trajectory and rather allowing schools to measure the growth of their students.”
Over the summer, 32 states as well as Washington, D.C., were granted NCLB waivers; Iowa was the only state that had its application denied.
Another important factor in considering Newton’s proficiency scores is the wide range of students Newton schools serve. While districts around Jasper County certainly harbor diversity, due to NCLB technicalities the scores of students that fall within certain demographics — free and reduced lunch students, for example — may not be recorded as such.
NCLB requires that school districts test upward of 30 students in any given demographic for the scores to be reported as an official subgroup that also must meet AYP; Newton is the only district in the county with enough students enrolled in special education programs to report these scores.
“As long as you have 30 or more special education students in a grade level, their scores will count,” Parker said. “No district in the area, aside from those in Des Moines or Marshalltown, is going to have that many.”
Furthermore, NCLB requires that any demographic subgroup within a district meet the same proficiency standards as the grade as a whole – this means that students enrolled in special education, English Language Learners and those who qualify for free and reduced lunches are expected to perform at a proficiency level equivalent with every other student. Many Newton students that missed AYP fell into these demographics.
While these factors perhaps influenced the Newton Community School District’s NCLB performance in 2011-2012, superintendent Steve McDermott pointed out exactly what they’re not: excuses.
“We analyze all our data and we analyze the context but we are also very careful not to use any of these factors as excuses,” McDermott said. “We are focused on improving for our local students, so we’ll use this data as we can to keep improving. The truth of the matter is that we’re trying to get better no matter what. We have made great strides within the district in closing gaps between different groups of students, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
McDermott noted that one of such gaps — the gap between students eligible for free and reduced lunches and those not eligible — became more pronounced in Newton following Maytag’s 2007 closing and the subsequent elimination of nearly 1,800 jobs.
“One of the more remarkable gap closings is that between students in poverty and not in poverty,” Gilbert added. “We’ve been able to close that gap so students in poverty are performing more similarly to students not in poverty. The special education gap is still there, so we’re working on ways to close that as well.”
The most notable change that will come about following this most recent NCLB Report Card, though, is the implementation of a strategic education plan within Newton’s schools.
“We are in the process of developing a plan due to our [DINA-3] status,” McDermott said. “This plan has to be submitted by Nov. 1, and we’re working with Department of Education and [Area Education Agency] officials to review local data and trends to identify high priorities and establish a plan.”
Gilbert explained that while the comprehensive plan’s deadline falls at the beginning of next month, many of the changes outlined in the plan are already in place.
“Many of the components of the plan are being implemented now,” he said. “We’ve been responding to [students’ scores] before this notice … and we’ve done some pretty extensive research on instructional practices, emergent reading skills, writing skills and mathematic skills. We’ve taken measure in the last couple years that have been pretty significant changes in our district. Now we just need some longevity to get some longitudinal data to say, ‘okay, what’s working and what’s not?’”
While it’s easy to get lost amid the facts and figures that govern NCLB and its objectives, McDermott explained that the emphasis of the district’s efforts really come down to the students and teachers within Newton’s classrooms.
“We have to keep in mind that with every number and every score and every piece of data, there are names and faces and personalities,” he said. “Every child is important. We watch individual data as well to determine what certain individual students need, and that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.
“There’s no statistic that shows the efforts being made by teachers,” he added. “Honestly, they’re probably working harder than ever before and I know they’re using more advanced methods than ever before, so we just want to do everything we can to improve.”
Nicole Wiegand can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 422 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.