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‘Needs improvement’ label may mislead

Although Cabot School District (CSD) is included in the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) list of school districts categorized as “Needs Improvement,” superintendent Tony Thurman cautioned about possible misunderstanding of the findings and what it means to CSD. Students in CSD remain among the top scoring in the state, he said.

“It is important for our parents and community to understand that a label assigned by the state doesn’t mean that our kids aren’t learning, teachers aren’t working hard, and the district isn’t scoring well on accountability measures. In fact, the opposite is true,” Thurman said.

“Our teachers are doing a great job of implementing the required Common Core State Standards in both literacy and mathematics,” he said.

On Tuesday, ADE released the findings determined under the new school accountability system that replaces the previous adequate yearly progress (AYP) requirements under No Child Left Behind. ADE said about 90 percent of Arkansas’ school districts were categorized as Needs Improvement.

Thurman explained how CSD with some of the highest overall achieving schools in the state could yet be designated as Needs Improvement in the accountability system.

It is a matter of the degree the district has improved since last measured, Thurman said. “The ‘Needs Improvement’ designation can be misleading,” Thurman said.

ADE sets improvement targets for each district and school that are based on past assessment results. “The better each district performed on the Benchmark and End of Course Assessments in 2011, the higher the targets were set,” Thurman said. And, the targets will continue to increase each year.

Because CSD scores are already strong, the targeted improvements become even higher.

There are districts with scores significantly lower than Cabot schools yet are designated as “Achieving,” Thurman said.

“This is because the targeted improvements set for those districts were not as high as Cabot’s,” he said.

To be designated as “Achieving,” district, the district must meet target rates in math and literacy in two student groups, Thurman said. Those groups are “All Students” and Targeted Assistance Gap Group (TAGG) - students with disabilities, English language learners, and economically disadvantaged students.

A district that does not meet the target in any of the four categories is designated “Needs Improvement,” regardless of the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced, Thurman explained.

“We were required to meet the target of 86.2 percent in literacy for all students, including English language learners, students in special education, and students from economically disadvantaged homes. We reached 85.3 percent,” Thurman said.

“We were required to meet the target of 87.9 percent in math for all students. We reached 83.9 percent,” he said.

The combination of high scores and high improvement targets is challenging for CSD, Thurman said. “It is exciting to have our schools recognized as some of the highest overall achieving schools in Arkansas, yet disappointing to be designated as ‘Needs Improvement’ on the accountability system. Our teachers are doing a great job of implementing the required Common Core State Standards in both literacy and mathematics.”

There are also problems that come with the changeover to the Common Core curriculum. All Arkansas schools began a new curriculum based on the Common Core State Standards during the 2012-13 school year, but the testing was on the Arkansas State Standards, Thurman said.

“There is a disparity in the assessment system. We are currently being assessed using the previous Benchmark learning standards but the district is pacing instruction based on Common Core requirements as directed by [ADE],” Thurman said.

“This is not an excuse because we can and will continue to improve. It is important for our parents and community to understand that a label assigned by the state doesn’t mean that our kids aren’t learning, teachers aren’t working hard, and the district isn’t scoring well on accountability measures,” Thurman said.

“We will continue examining the data, our programming, and how it applies to each student. We have almost nine out of every ten kids in our district scoring proficient or advanced. Our challenge is to do everything possible to have every child at that level of performance,” he said.

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