How Metro Schools cleared the NCLB hurdle

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 7:48pm

Spirits are high these days at Metro Nashville Public Schools. How long they remain lifted is another story.

The district is meeting the requirements of state and federal No Child Left Behind laws, having reached “Improving” status last week. In meeting the requirements, the district averted a set of weighty consequences — if the district hadn’t passed this year, the DOE would have had the authority to remove individual school board members as well as Director of Schools Jesse Register.

As public officials and the many individuals involved in public education digest the news, the details of MNPS’ progress under NCLB specify the nature of the celebration — among the highlights is a momentous improvement in high school performance — as well as the challenges that lie ahead.

The requirements only were met this year through a Safe Harbor appeal. That’s different from meeting NCLB requirements by reaching the regularly required benchmarks for all groups of students. Safe Harbor means that Nashville showed sufficient improvement to reach “Improving” status.

MNPS must meet a total of 74 benchmarks each year for NCLB, said Paul Changas, the district’s assessment and evaluation chief. There’s one benchmark each for graduation and attendance, in addition to 36 benchmarks for high school achievement and 36 benchmarks for achievement in kindergarten through eighth-grade.

The breaking down of so many subgroups is enough to leave some educators working to catch their breath.

The high school and K-8 benchmarks measure math and reading achievement for nine subgroups of Metro students. One “subgroup” consists of all the students in the evaluated grade levels. Another subgroup measures economically disadvantaged students, who make up more than 70 percent of the total student body at MNPS.

There are subgroups for students with disabilities and students learning English, as well as subgroups for racial and ethnic groups — for example, white, African-American and Hispanic students — represented at MNPS.

If you don’t think an individual subgroup is important, look at what happened last year.

In the 2007-2008 school year, most of the benchmarks MNPS failed were for subgroups at the high school level. But it was one single reading benchmark that the district missed — by less than one percentage point, according to Changas — for one subgroup at the K-8 level that kept the district from reaching “Improving” status last year.

In the 2008-2009 school year, the results flip-flopped. The district missed no benchmarks at the high school level, but fell short of three serious benchmarks measuring kids in K-8. One of these benchmarks measures reading for all K-8 students, and another reading for economically disadvantaged students in those grades.

Connie Smith, the DOE accountability chief who orchestrated many of the changes at MNPS made in the last two years, said that MNPS missing the reading benchmark for all students in grades K-8 is “huge.” Meeting all the high school benchmarks, however, is a major success.

“We haven’t seen any improvement for seven years in the middle and high schools,” Smith said. “The infrastructure of support that we put into place for high schools is working. I give a lot of credit to associate superintendent [Jim] Briggs, who is following the data. Every principal is following every piece of data on every kid. That’s the way to do it. You fix a school one student at a time.”

Light shines on failures, not successes

The fact that the district’s NCLB troubles seem to have flipped from the high school grades two years ago to K-8 in the most recent school year is a change that Smith says is common.

“Sometimes it flip-flops. I’ve seen that in a lot of schools, in a lot of systems,” Smith said. “I think, once you fail something, you shine a light on it and you focus on it. A lot of times, it’s to the detriment of what you didn’t fail. The secret is, you’ve got to focus on everything for all kids. … That’s what makes it so hard.”

To reach Safe Harbor, MNPS had to show at least a 10 percent decline in the number of non-proficient students in each subgroup. The district also had to prove improvement in an additional indicator, which for MNPS was the district’s dropout rate.

Documenting a dropout rate can be tricky, as students rarely fill out a form before dropping out of school. Therefore, part of calculating the official dropout rate involves office workers at individual schools proving that kids who transferred outside MNPS actually reported to school elsewhere, according to Changas. This is a process the district undertakes every year.

“We knew, the stakes being what they were, that we had to have everything absolutely perfect. I’ve got a lot of people to thank,” Changas said. “But this isn’t about the process. It’s about the schools. They did the hard part. It was just a matter of documenting their work.”

Among the many changes having taken place at Metro schools in the last year, district record keeping and data tracking have been among the areas of focus. State and school officials have said the new data procedures in place — at the level of individual schools and at the district — have been significant.

When asked whether the district’s securing of Safe Harbor could be described as “close,” the DOE’s Smith gave a definitive “no.”

“With Safe Harbor, there is no ‘close,’” Smith said. “You either make it or you don’t.”

New standards pose new challenges

Meanwhile, as the district moves ahead in meeting its own challenges, big changes are in store for every Tennessee school district starting this fall. The state is raising its academic standards, and kids district-wide will need to master more difficult material starting this year.

Officials from across Tennessee have said publicly that there will be a few years of adjustment to the new standards. State Department of Education Commissioner Tim Webb has said the state is working with the federal government to negotiate flexibility in meeting NCLB requirements while schools ramp up their standards, and he told reporters last week that that the U.S. Department of Education seems “very receptive.”

Whether or not leniency is given, Webb said he expects to see “implementation dips” as the standards are rolled out.

Most agree that catch-up work is in order, despite the challenges. Educational research suggests that Tennessee has had, on the whole, less rigorous measures than other states of what knowledge kids must possess to be considered “proficient” on standardized tests — and in federal and state NCLB measures of school and district performance.

Gov. Phil Bredesen and the state Board of Education have worked to set in motion a plan to alleviate this problem through the Tennessee Diploma Project.

Mayor Karl Dean is among those in favor of the changes, although he acknowledged that the change poses new challenges for districts like Nashville that have struggled to meet the existing standards.

“We’re going to go up to the highest standards, and we’re now not making it under the lowest standards,” Dean said. “Rightfully so, the governor has seized on this Diploma Project. … It’s going to be a tough road to go, but it’s something we need to do and we’ll get through it.”