LAWRENCEVILLE -- When the Georgia Department of Education released the initial Adequate Yearly Progress report Monday, the data seemed disheartening at first glance.
Solid growth in the statewide high school graduation rate (which is now at an all-time high of 79.9 percent) was nearly overshadowed by the fact that 28.9 percent of all public schools failed to make AYP -- a figure greater than that of the past five years, according to a policy brief released this week by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.
In Gwinnett County, the initial AYP report showed 89 percent of the district's 118 schools met state accountability goals. That's the lowest percentage in three years.
"For these schools, failure to make AYP may pose a huge blow to academic reputation and create frustrations among parents and community members," Susan Walker, GPEE's director of policy and research, wrote in the brief. "At the state level, this year's AYP results raise questions among public school stakeholders about the effectiveness of recent reform efforts and the direction in which our schools are heading.
"But is the underlying message of this year's AYP results really that clear cut?" she continued. "Should Georgia's policymakers, business leaders, teachers and parents conclude that more than one-fourth of our public schools (in the state) are failing?"
What is AYP?
One of the cornerstones of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, AYP is an annual measure of student participation and achievement on statewide assessments and other academic indicators.
While the federal law allows each state to establish its own system of standards and assessments, it does mandate the accountability framework by which all schools must be measured, the policy brief states.
AYP requires schools to meet standards in three areas: test participation in both mathematics and reading/English language arts; academic performance on state assessments in both mathematics and reading/English language arts; and a second indicator, which for high schools must be the graduation rate.
To make AYP, standards in each of these three areas must be successfully met by all students in a school as well as by each subgroup -- Asian, black, Hispanic, American Indian, white, multiracial, students with disabilities, English language learners and/or economically disadvantaged -- that includes at least 40 students.
The overarching goal of NCLB is to ensure 100 percent of public school students across the country achieve proficiency in reading and math by the year 2014. To reach that goal, each state sets annual levels of improvement, based on student performance on state standardized tests, that school districts and schools must achieve, according to the policy brief.
These levels of improvement, known as Annual Measurable Objectives, establish the percentage of students that must meet or exceed proficiency on math and reading/English tests each year. AMO targets must be met by all students and each subgroup in a school for a school to make AYP.
In some subject areas, AMO targets have remained at the same level for several years in a row. Yet now, as we move closer to the year 2014, the AMO bar will be raised higher and higher each subsequent year.
Does failure to make AYP really denote a failing school?
The recent data show the percentage of Georgia's schools making AYP dropped at every level -- elementary, middle and high.
"While adequate yearly progress as defined by our state and federal accountability systems is certainly a goal schools should incorporate into their strategic plans, a few specific examples help illustrate how AYP ratings can often misrepresent the true story of a school," Walker wrote.
Consider Hopkins Elementary School, one of Gwinnett's largest elementary schools with about 1,800 students. (Just over 1,000 were in the grade levels used to calculate AYP.)
Last year, Hopkins was one of 34 Gwinnett schools designated as a Georgia Title I Distinguished School for meeting academic goals -- and one of three Title I elementary schools in Gwinnett that had made AYP for eight consecutive years. (Title I schools receive federal funds to better serve their student body, which includes a higher percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch -- and therefore, a higher percentage of students considered economically disadvantaged.)
This year, Hopkins made AYP in all but one subgroup -- students with disabilities. In that group, 44 students earned scores at the basic level in mathematics, and 33.5 did not meet standards in reading/English. By missing the mark in that area, Hopkins did not make AYP in the initial state report.
Other Title I schools named Distinguished Schools last year are Lilburn Elementary, Berkmar Middle, Shiloh Middle, Snellville Middle and Summerour Middle -- all of which did not make AYP in this year's initial report.
Snellville Middle and Berkmar Middle were also recognized for outstanding performance through the Single Statewide Accountability System for making the greatest gains in student achievement on state curriculum tests. Snellville Middle was honored with the gold award, and Berkmar Middle was honored at the silver level.
At the high school level, the four schools that did not make AYP -- Berkmar, Central Gwinnett, Phoenix and South Gwinnett -- were all named AP Access and Support Schools for having 30 percent of Advanced Placement test takers who are black or Hispanic and at least 30 percent of all AP exams with a score of 3 or higher.
What happens now?
At this point, the 2010 AYP results are only preliminary, Walker noted. After the outcomes of summer school sessions and retests have been gathered, AYP calculations will be adjusted, and the overall data may look significantly different. In 2009, the percentage of all schools making AYP rose from 79 percent to 86 percent after the retest period.
"This year, however, the final AYP determinations may not yield as substantial an improvement," Walker wrote. "Quite simply, making AYP has become harder for schools, and the bar will continue to be raised over the next four years."
This year, the required target for high school graduation rates was 80 percent, which is an increase of five percentage points from last year's target. While Walker said the increased target was not a surprise -- grad rate targets have increased by five percentage points each year since 2007 -- this is the first year the state average graduation rate falls below the AYP target rate.
"Even if our state graduation rate continues to trend upward in the future, as it has done each year in recent history, the annual improvements required by our AYP trajectory may be a mountain too steep to climb for some schools by 2014," Walker wrote.
Likewise, the academic performance levels required for schools to make AYP continue to rise each year, Walker said.
This year, only elementary and middle schools faced a higher academic bar, as the AMO for mathematics achievement was increased.
"Yet beginning in 2011 and continuing each year until 2014, schools at every level will face annual higher targets in each AYP subject area," Walker wrote. "Incremental, steady growth in student learning will no longer be enough to earn the distinction of 'making AYP.'"
Accountability in education is a critical piece of ensuring schools adequately equip students with the knowledge and tools to succeed in this world, Walker wrote.
For the schools that have struggled for years and continue to not make AYP, Walker said there must be targeted intervention and reform to turn things around. In schools that easily meet yearly targets, there are best practices and lessons to be learned by the broader education community, she said.
"But for a vast majority of schools, the AYP measure may not be giving an accurate picture of the quality of teaching and learning," Walker noted. "And as we round the bend heading down the straightaway toward 2014, the road will get trickier for many of our schools."