Second-graders practiced writing sentences read aloud by their teacher Thursday at Twin Lakes Elementary.
“The list is on my desk. The list is on my desk,” Jeri McDevitt said slowly and clearly, strolling around the room and looking at her students’ papers as they painstakingly drew their letters. “I am seeing that a lot of you are really good at spelling. That’s really exciting.”
A renewed focus on reading and writing has led to something perhaps more exciting for the entire Lakeland School District, based in Rathdrum. Last school year, all 11 of the district’s schools met the “adequate yearly progress” goals mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That’s an improvement from the 2006-’07 school year, when, like many districts in Idaho, Lakeland saw student language scores decline on the new version of the Idaho Standards Achievement Test. Lakeland and many others failed to hit their goals.
In the 2007-’08 school year, four North Idaho districts, including Lakeland, met the state standards. While that means nine others fell short, educators are applauding the gains schools statewide made in 2007-’08. Many educators attributed the poor performance in 2006-’07 to tougher standards and a new ISAT.
In 2007-’08, 12 of 16 schools in the Coeur d’Alene School District hit their goals, after only six did so the previous school year. In Post Falls, five of the district’s seven schools achieved the goals, after all seven fell short the year before. A single school not making adequate progress means the entire district does not achieve that mark.
And though the state’s schools did better overall last year, more than half the districts still are not making the progress dictated by the federal government. In 2007-’08, 43 percent of the state’s districts hit their goals, up from 27 percent the year before.
“We are hearing of more districts teaching to the content standards rather than teaching to the test,” said Mark Browning, spokesman for the state Board of Education, who predicted more improvement next year. “Each district has a goal to improve their scores and to improve the proficiency of students.”
In Post Falls, Superintendent Jerry Keane said language usage skills improved greatly among the district’s schools, but students need to improve middle school math skills. Keane said he was most proud of improvements made among the district’s African-American, Hispanic and Native American students. “That’s what No Child Left Behind is all about,” he said. “It helps close those performance gaps.”
Other educators, however, criticized the federal law for being unnecessarily punitive when it labels an entire school or district a failure as a result of challenges with subgroups of students.
Students at Washington Elementary School in the Lake Pend Oreille School District had solid reading and math scores, but because the district tested one too few special-education students, that school failed to meet goals, said Superintendent Dick Cvitanich.
“The rules are pretty arcane,” he said. “We think in our mind, Washington made it, but according to the criteria, they did not. Sandpoint Middle School did not make AYP, and yet in the area of reading they exceeded the statewide average. That doesn’t seem quite fair.”
Coeur d’Alene Superintendent Hazel Bauman agreed that the federal law is too punitive, but she said the intention is “right on. We have to close the achievement gap.”
She applauded the hard work that helped improve the district’s performance, but she remained focused on helping two subgroups of students struggling the most – low-income children and students with disabilities. Three of four district schools failed to meet goals because they did not meet those students’ needs, she said.
Bauman said she knows students who continue to struggle can be helped because other district schools with similar challenges – including Borah, Fernan and Bryan elementary schools – have been successful. Low-income students rely almost entirely on their schools to teach them what they need to know to be successful, she said, while wealthier families can afford to offer children more resources and educational experiences outside of school.
“We know what to do,” Bauman said. “We have to be absolutely vigilant that we don’t have any holes in our curriculum for those kids. Once we do that, that gap just closes.”