More than a thousand schools in Washington state are failing to make adequate progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law, but a handful of others are beating the odds and improving enough to work their way off the growing list of failing schools.
Three elementary schools in the Puyallup School District are among 35 in the state making enough academic progress to earn their way off the needs-improvement list this year.
Nancy Arnold, director of assessment and accountability in Puyallup, said the secret to their success is a lot of hard work and plenty of informal tests throughout the school year to help teachers figure out what every kid needs to improve.
Pope, Warren Hunt and Wildwood elementary schools — plus two that have not yet earned their way off the needs-improvement list — devote about a half hour each day to what the district calls an intervention block, Arnold said.
“That is a block of time where everyone helps with providing for the individual needs of all students,” she said.
Students are divided up by their needs and extra teachers come into the classroom and coach them in smaller groups. Some get extra help with math, others work on reading and more advanced students get some kind of enrichment.
Arnold said the most important thing for Puyallup is to use student learning time in an efficient manner.
“We really don’t have unlimited time,” she said.
State officials say about 1,388 Washington schools were on the list of schools needing improvement in 2011. That’s an increase of about 200 schools from 2010.
To make adequate yearly progress, a certain percentage of students in a school or district must pass the state’s reading and math tests each year.
The results are broken down by ethnic group and poverty level, and if one category of students fails to meet its goals, the whole school fails — which explains how test scores can improve generally, without meeting the measurements imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
There are 37 categories a school must meet to make adequate yearly progress, and 265 schools made the needs-improvement list by missing just one category.
Schools that fail to meet their goals for several years in a row face sanctions that could eventually lead to a school being closed or a district firing the entire staff and reopening the building with a new team.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn says by 2014, when federal law requires all children in the national to be meeting academic standards in reading in math, every school in Washington could be on the needs-improvement list.
The U.S. Department of Education has offered waivers to school districts to use until Congress fixes what the Obama adminstration views as a failed law. Dorn said he doesn’t know yet if he will pursue a waiver for Washington.
In Auburn, two elementary schools graduated off the improvement list this year by using testing and targeted instruction, along with a special emphasis on helping kids in the early grades learn to read, said Superintendent Kip Herren.
Teachers do frequent testing inside the classroom to keep track of student progress and then divide the kids into smaller groups, with some getting extra lessons on the computer and others working with a teacher.
Instead of one teacher teaching a fifth-grade class all day long, students are working with a cadre of teachers on their specific skills in a flexible, targeted fashion, Herren said.
“We’re not surprised by our results,” he added.
The results the district was seeing in its own testing showed a lot of growth in student learning over the past few years. He said they were just waiting for state school officials to catch on to what the district already knew.
It all adds up to lots of hard work and focus, Dorn said.
Nearly 200 districts across the state are now giving students additional tests throughout the year to track how they’re doing and help teachers plan their lessons better or help struggling students.
Two other districts had multiple schools earn their way off the list: Seattle and Northshore, with three schools graduating off the list in each district.
Seattle Public Schools officials say children across the district have made academic gains over the past few years thanks to a number of school and district initiatives, including improvements in the way the district teaches math.
“We have focused on giving students a robust, real-world understanding of mathematical concepts,” said Superintendent Susan Enfield. “Instead of teaching to the test, we have worked to make sure our students truly understand basic concepts. That approach has proven extremely successful.”
The whole district also is giving in-class assessments three times a year to help teachers know the specific kinds of help individual students need.
Enfield said her top goal for this school year will be to work on closing the achievement gap between children of various ethnic groups. The only ethnic group to meet the standard in both reading and math in Seattle elementary and middle schools last school year was white students. In Seattle high schools, Asian/Pacific Islander students also met academic goals.