SIKESTON -- The recent decision by state education officials to lower academic benchmarks has put a little smile across the faces of most school administrators and teachers.
East Prairie R-2 Superintendent Scott Downing said he's excited about the revised goals for "yearly adequate progress" (AYP) of the state's standardized test.
"It sets more of a realistic goal for next year and I appreciate them taking a second look at it. It's giving rural schools, which typically have limited resources, more of a chance to level the playing field with the other schools," said Downing, who commended state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Dr. Kent King for lowering the goals.
In the revised plan, 26.6 percent of students will be required to score at the proficient or advanced levels on this spring's Missouri Assessment Program tests in communication arts to the make AYP. The previous target was 38.8 percent. In math, the target dropped from 31.1 percent to 17.5 percent. In 2004, the goal was 20.4 percent in reading and 10.3 percent in math.
"If schools view the goals as being impossible, there's a danger of them giving up, and that's not constructive. It doesn't move us toward the goal of proficiency," said Jim Morris, public information officer for DESE.
So the result was to set goals that are challenging, yet realistic, Morris said.
"If teachers and kids will stay focused on a goal of making steady improvement rather than being intimidated by some early arbitrary goal, it's better for all concerned," Morris commented.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, all public schools are required to meet defined annual goals for adequate yearly progress in reading and math.
NCLB also requires all students achieve at the proficient level in reading and math by 2014. Schools that receive federal funds under NCLB to educate low-income children are subject to penalties if they do not meet the AYP targets.
"The ultimate goal by 2014 is unchanged," Morris said. "Everybody still faces the ultimate challenge of getting to the proficient level," Morris said, adding this is just a change in DESE's timetable.
Dr. Stephanie Reddick, curriculum director for Sikeston R-6, admitted she, too, is pleased with the goal change.
"Of course it doesn't change our preparation (for the MAP test), but it does give us smaller intervals to reach a little more attainable goal," Reddick commented.
Reddick thinks the adjusted goals will give schools more time to prepare for the tests and learn more about preparing for the tests.
"We prepare for MAP year-round and even through the summers," Reddick noted.
As required by NCLB, DESE is currently developing specific tests in communication arts and math for grades 3-8. A large sample from each grade will be field tested from May 2-6 after Missouri students take the existing MAP test, which has a testing window of March 28-April 29.
Data will be collected from the field tests this fall and will be used to reset the proficiency standards and cut scores for all subjects in all the grades, Morris explained. Then the redesigned MAP tests will be given in spring 2006.
"We felt because the targets this year were going to triple in math and nearly double in communication arts, they simply aren't realistic for many schools and if we can help avoid potential sanctions which then might be erased after 2006 we thought this was the best thing to do," Morris explained.
And schools couldn't agree more. The response from education officials has been overwhelmingly positive, Morris added.
"One of the complaints that we have heard about the NCLB and AYP process are about some of the unintended consequences may have on a school," Morris said.
Of course Morris reminded the change of targets is a temporary adjustment that was also approved by the U.S. Department of Education.
"Two or three years down the road, schools will be looking at some high hurdles again," Morris said. "But every school in the country is facing the same thing."
And no one is ignoring the challenge schools face, Morris noted.
Downing agreed schools aren't forgetting their challenge simply because of the AYP target change.
He said: "But it does delay the pain."