The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

February 25, 2013

Education officials steering away from AYP

By Kim West

— School systems in Alabama have been steered away from fretting about Annual Yearly Progress results as state education officials tout a new initiative to measure achievement, improve graduation rates and graduate prepared students.

The state initiative is known as Plan 2020, and is currently in development as schools finish a final year under AYP. These standards are used to rank and assign status to a school or school system based on a requirement of 100 percent attainment of all goals for all students.

AYP is part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which mandates that all students must reach 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014, a goal former state Superintendent Joe Morton characterized as unrealistic and a fallacy.

AYP results

Nearly 75 percent of Alabama schools made AYP, or reached 100 percent of their goals during the 2011-12 school year, and another 13 percent achieved 90 percent or more of their goals, according to the Alabama School Journal.

In results announced by the Alabama State Department of Education, 26 of 132 school systems did not meet AYP, compared to the 2010-11 school year when 49 systems missed the mark.

Alabama is ranked second in the U.S. in federal funding for education, 14th in state money and 44th in local funds, according to a 2011-12 report by the ASDE.

Limestone County Schools was placed in the school improvement category for missing AYP as a system for two consecutive school years after falling shy of special education benchmarks in grades 3-12 in reading and math.

Cedar Hill, Blue Springs, Piney Chapel, Owens, Johnson and Creekside elementary schools and Clements High School all made AYP from the Limestone County school system.

East Limestone and Tanner high schools each made at least 90 percent, while Ardmore, Elkmont, West Limestone and Elkmont high schools topped 88 percent or higher. As a whole, the county’s high schools did not reach their overall reading goal by 2.26 points.

Plan 2020

The plan is divided into four major areas, including students, teachers and administrators, school systems and school support professionals. The state Board of Education is still awaiting approval by the U.S. Department of Education to grant a waiver for the 2014 NCLB mandate.

“It addresses four broad areas that all have measurable goals and objectives that will guide the work of the board and state department for the next eight years,” Bice told the Alabama School Journal in August. “The waiver applies to a central part of this plan, and that is to move assessment to a more balanced and meaningful system that focuses on the day-to-day instruction in the classroom rather than one single test in the spring.”

Phasing away from AYP

Rhonda Stringham, executive director of curriculum for Limestone, said AYP in Alabama this year is being recorded but there’s no longer any apprehension about the unpopular accountability report.

“We’re only going to give AYP one more year, and then the state education department is going to do the testing,” she said. “The lame-duck part of it is what Alabama is using as Annual Yearly Progress, which is the (Alabama Reading and Math Test) for grades 3-8, and the graduation exam. All of this is going to be phased out.”

Stringham attended a July professional development conference featuring state Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice as the keynote speaker, and she said he urged teachers to focus on energizing students and teaching fundamental lessons.

“He told the teachers to focus on teaching the standards. I was actually present last July when Dr. Bice said not to worry about AYP anymore, and to just teach kids what they need to know,” Stringham said. “Dinosaurs are fun but students need to know how to read, write good paragraphs and how to be analytical. We just need to teach them well, and teach them in a way they love. We want to spark students, and get them excited about learning.”

Graduation rates

The 2020 plan establishes a 72 percent baseline graduation rate from 2012. The goal for 2013 is 73 percent, 76 in 2014 and 78 in 2015. The four-year target is 80 percent, and the goal by 2016 is to reach or exceed 90 percent.

Stringham said Limestone’s objective is to achieve a perfect graduation rate from a system with approximately 9,100 students, even if this goal isn’t necessarily realistic. The graduation report for the previous school year is pending because school systems are allowed to count fifth-year seniors, including special education students.

“Our goal is 100 percent. We want all kids to graduate. I know it’s a lofty goal but it’s so important,” she said. “We want every child to be a graduate, and to have all their dreams come true and not have any doors closed to them.”

New additions

Learning Focused, a program focused on “improving how teachers teach,” is being piloted at Tanner this year, Stringham said.

“The other thing we’re doing all over the state is implementing the new college and career-ready standards,” she said. “It started in 2012-13 with math for K-12, and English for K-12 will be implemented in 2013-14. And we’re probably going to have our (local) board adopt our new diploma, which opens up more options for kids in their electives.”

Stringham said the new diploma would include Career Preparation, a three-part course mandated for ninth-graders beginning in the fall.

“It includes financial literacy, a computer and online portion and academic and career planning. Everyone is really excited about having a financial literacy course, and that piece for career planning,” she said.

Going digital

Stringham said the Central Office is currently working on boosting infrastructure capable of handling additional technology.

“We’re working on building our infrastructure, our wiring and our wireless and bandwidth connections to be the best it can be so there won’t be any crashes or meltdowns when the time comes to add more digital devices,” she said.

Digital learning is a key trend for educators, Stringham said. She said 70 iPads are shared among students at Tanner, and two elementary schools also have iPads through federal funding.

“We are keeping our eye on the digital world, and what digital learning will mean to kids. We have the beginning of a plan for this, and we’re monitoring what other school systems are doing with digital resources,” she said. “We want our kids to have a 21st century education, also. I don’t have a crystal ball but if financially possible, we would like to see every child have a digital device to use in the classroom, whether it’s an iPad, laptop or a desktop computer.”