Board considers success, failures on assessments
District officials ponder ways to improve scores of special education students
At Monday's De Soto USD 232 Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Sharon Zoellner praised student performance on annual state assessment tests. Zoellner and Board members expressed pride in student performance despite the district failing to meet all requirements for district proficiency according to the No Child Left Behind Act.
"All of our schools hit requirements, even though our district did not," Zoellner said of the tests district students took last spring. "Once the results were released last week, we immediately began looking at what we can do to better prepare our students to succeed on the tests."
The district's performance in the tests taken last spring was highlighted by the achievement of Lexington Trails Middle School eighth-graders. The class members earned a standard of excellence in social studies.
Zoellner spoke specifically of finding ways to put students with disabilities in better position to meet progress benchmarks. The district's failure to meet annual yearly progress occurred on reading assessments for students with identified disabilities.
"Children with disabilities are expected to meet the same standards set by the state for the general student population," Zoellner said. "De Soto special education students showed improvement at all grade levels. Five percent overall progress is something I'm happy with. Ten percent progress may not be realistic."
Board members discussed revisiting special education programs but were cautious about changing the district's vision of providing life-based skills for students with special needs.
"The parents of students with disabilities tell me they are pleased with the services we offer," Board member Sandra Thierer said. "I hope these results don't cause us to lose our focus, no matter what Washington, D.C., thinks and dictates to us."
Kansas Department of Education Assistant Director Alexa Pochowski said USD 232's experience was not unique. Districts across the state failed to meet annual yearly progress levels of proficiency among their students with disabilities.
"It's a complicated issue when looking at students with disabilities because we have 13 different categories of students in this group," Pochowski said. "It is very hard to analyze this data and find where we need to turn our attention, because it doesn't tell you that one particular category of students with disabilities was bringing the entire group down."
Like the USD 232 Board, Pochowski was upbeat about the state's performance, especially De Soto's test results. She saw the performance of students with disabilities as showing tremendous growth considering their circumstances. According to Pochowski, the state was happy to see districts like De Soto focusing on teaching students with disabilities and other disadvantaged students with the same approach and learning expectations as other students.
"When you see their growth going up (more than 5 percent), that is something significant that tells you De Soto is on the right track," Pochowski said. "Three to four years ago, our school districts were not focused on holding all students to these same standards of improvement."
In assessing students, school districts are required to report the performance of children who belong to any of 10 groups of students, which include children with disabilities, children living in poverty, and children belonging to one of seven racial or minority groups. Board members agreed the No Child Left Behind Act's mandate that students with disabilities test at the same levels as the total student population was not realistic.
The Board asked Zoellner how USD 232 and other districts could dispute the "failing" assessment despite exceptional all-around performance in the district. Zoellner noted that an appeal process was a viable option and predicted multiple appeals from surrounding districts in the near future.
"The fact is we are doing well," Thierer said. "If we were at the bottom, then it would be easy to improve, but since we're not doing 10 percent (progress) we suffer.
"A lot of good schools are going to get left out (of federal funding) if things stay the same."
The No Child Left Behind Act requires students in English Language Learners Programs be tested with the general population as soon as they are deemed fluent. The state of Kansas has yet to release further information that defines that yardstick, De Soto English Language Learners Coordinator Debbie Taylor said,
"We're not going to wait and see what we need to do in order to make our students proficient," Taylor said. "All we can do is continue to give the students the skills they need to not just succeed on the test but in school overall."
This year, 30 percent of Starside Elementary School's Hispanic student population posted reading assessment scores that were graded as "proficient." In comparison, 71 percent of those classified as "white" students finished at a level considered proficient or higher. Fortunately for the district, the No Child Left Behind Act states that 30 or more students must be enrolled in the same grade level before the test results have to be reported. Currently the district's ELL population does not come close to hitting that number.
"Our ELL population is not large enough in any one grade level at Starside or at any other school in the district to where it will be reported for a few more years," Taylor said. "When the numbers come, we'll hope and pray that the kids are proficient by that time."
Taylor, like many of the school board members, said it was unrealistic for certain categories of students to be in compliance with annual yearly progress requirements.
"When you have children moving in from another country, it's completely unrealistic to think they'll pass the same test (as other students)," Taylor said. "We have kindergartners coming in without any English and a lot of students with very little exposure to English.
ELL students are now required by law to take additional tests on top of the tests they are already taking, such as English and social studies. As school gets in full swing, learning coaches will be on their way to Starside and other schools to evaluate how state testing is affecting students learning.
"It's a whole new ball game," Taylor said. "Giving them the skills to succeed in school, not just on the test, remains the top priority.
"All we can do is give them the skills they need and hope for the best."