State to step in at 19 school districts
The Arizona Republic
Sept. 5, 2007


Federal standards not met for 4 years
Pat Kossan and Matt Dempsey

For the first time, Arizona school districts, not just schools, face state intervention because they failed to meet federal academic standards four years in a row.

The 19 districts include some of the Valley's largest and most well-respected, such as Paradise Valley Unified in Phoenix and Mesa Public Schools, the state's largest.

Flunking the federal standards means that state officials already are marching into district offices, meeting with superintendents and demanding change. Issues will likely be progress for English learners, kids living in poverty and special-education students. Despite the bad news, the overall trend for Arizona schools is good.

The number of schools that failed the tough federal standard, called "adequate yearly progress," or AYP, fell to 519 this year from last year's record-setting 609. The total could drop further after many schools file appeals.

It is not easy for schools or districts to meet AYP. They must increase the number of students who pass the AIMS reading and math tests and make sure 95 percent of students take Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards on testing day. High schools also are judged on graduation rates, and elementary schools are judged on attendance.

This year, federal officials for the first time gave Arizona schools credits for students who moved closer to passing AIMS. But they also took away points for any student whose scores were sliding.

The toughest part was that schools and districts had to meet the required goals both overall and in nine smaller student groups. The groups included kids learning English, students who belong to a minority group, kids living in poverty and kids in special education.

State education officials are still examining the results but said no single measure helped Arizona improve. There was small progress on all fronts, Arizona schools chief Tom Horne said.

If a district or school misses the same goal for four or more years, the state is required by federal officials to intervene in the district's or a school's daily operations.

This year, 20 schools are in their fifth year of failing and face big changes. They may have to change their curriculum, the way they train teachers or how they track a student's academic progress. The state may even replace principals and staff. The 19 districts failing for four consecutive years will face a more-measured response.

Mesa Public Schools' testing director, Joe O'Reilly, said the federal standard gives the district and its schools 254 ways to fail. The Mesa district met all but 26 of the demands, even increasing the number of language learners in Grades 5 and 6 who passed AIMS.

It made the "failing" list because not enough of its third-grade, special-education students or its eighth- and 10th-grade English learners are passing the AIMS reading test.

"But people will say, 'You didn't make adequate academic yearly progress.'
That's frustrating," O'Reilly said. "Basically, I don't think you'll ever hit all 254 goals every year."

Northeast Phoenix's Paradise Valley has seen this coming for three years.
Officials there knew enough of their language learners were not passing AIMS. Testing director Rob Allen said the district will revamp its language-learning curriculum, train the teachers in the changes and then test the kids throughout the year to see if they're improving. Allen admits that the ease with which a district can fail the U.S. standard is annoying and frustrating.

"But you don't want any category of students or groups of students to underperform," Allen said. "This corrective action helps us. It narrows our focus and achieves improvement for this group of kids."

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