Federal designation is mixed message

Recently released testing data gave Principal Anita Schackmann plenty to celebrate — Luther Middle School climbed 19 points to a score of 845 on the Academic Performance Index, the statewide measure of student achievement.

In addition, four of five significant subgroups — including Latino and socio-economically disadvantaged students — at the Burbank school also posted double-digit gains on the accountability scale, commonly referred to as API, with a score of 800 as the all-important benchmark.

The 2010-11 numbers built upon four years of steady growth at Luther Middle School, propelled by detailed data analysis, intervention programs and increased individual attention, Schackmann said.

But for the third consecutive year, Luther will bear a sort of scarlet letter in public education — “program improvement.” It is a federal designation via the No Child Left Behind Act that is applied to schools when any single subgroup of students fails to hit proficiency targets for two consecutive years.

“It is confusing because our growth has been steady,” Schackmann said. “We have grown every year for the last five years. We do a really good job of meeting the needs of our students.”

The contradiction between rising test scores and the federal designation can been seen at schools throughout the state, and high-ranking education officials are taking notice. Last month, state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson entreated U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to freeze the program improvement sanction.

“Relief is needed immediately before more schools suffer for another school year under inappropriate labels and ineffective interventions,” Torlakson said in his letter.

Local educators have been equally vocal in their calls for reform. The annually increasing federal targets — which this year were 11% growth in the number of students testing proficient in English language arts and mathematics — are not realistic, they said.

“This is an antiquated system,” Glendale Unified Assistant Supt. Kathy Fundukian Thorossian said. “It should have been redone a long time ago. We are hoping we just do away with it.”

Glendale and Burbank school districts now have a combined 14 schools in program improvement, even though 12 saw their API scores climb during the 2010-11 year.

Eventually, critics say, the compounding growth targets will make it virtually impossible for even the best schools to keep up, pushing them, too, into program improvement status.

“I think we can look down the road and we can see a very high percentage of our schools in the state are going to be in program improvement when you are having to make 11-point jumps every year,” said Bobbie Kavanaugh, principal of McKinley Elementary School in Burbank, which slipped into the category this year despite a 16-point jump in its API score.

Accountability is important, said Burbank Unified school board President Ted Bunch, adding the he wants to see scores trending upward. But the pace of growth demanded by the No Child Left Behind Act is unsustainable, he added.

“It is a federal law and I cannot not give weight to a federal law,” Bunch said. “We have no choice, we have to do everything we can to meet their criteria. But there is just coming a place where very few school districts in the nation will be able to meet that criteria.”

Lynn Marso, principal at Roosevelt Middle School in Glendale, said that she feels strongly that her school is effectively addressing the achievement gap that has plagued Latino students. The school-wide API score climbed eight points to 793, and each one of its significant subgroups posted API gains of five points or more.

Roosevelt is now entering its third year of program improvement.

“I would say on a daily basis, whether we are or not in program improvement, we are going to continue to do our jobs with the passion that we do every day,” Marso said.

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