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Local schools ask for review of failing grade

Three of the 14 area schools included on a list of Montana schools that failed to meet new federal education requirements have requested a review by the state Office of Public Instruction.

The reviews were requested for Sunnyside Intermediate School, Box Elder Middle School, and Big Sandy High School, said Joe Lamson, communications director of the state Office of Public Instruction.

Lamson said Thursday that about 25 of the 179 Montana schools that did not meet the new requirements filed a response by last Friday's deadline requesting a review.

"We're trying to work with the districts and schools as much as we can to get an accurate picture of where they are," Lamson said.

Some of the requests ask OPI to examine a variety of suspected errors in calculating attendance, participation rates and test scores that led to the schools' inclusion on the list, OPI accreditation specialist Al McMilin said.

Several are simply requesting an explanation of some part of OPI's report, said Judy Snow, state assessment director at OPI.

McMilin said a team of specialists at OPI will review the schools' responses this month and issue a revised list of schools that fail to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind, President Bush's sweeping education policy.

"The basic thing is, was there a statistics error that made this come out wrong," McMilin said.

The revised list is expected to be released on Sept. 23, Lamson said.

No Child Left Behind sets strict standards for attendance and graduation rates, participation rates for standardized tests, and reading and math scores on those tests. It requires those standards not only for a school as a whole, but for subgroups within each school and district, including minorities, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities - a total of 55 subgroups altogether. Schools that fail to meet the requirements for two years in any of the subgroups face penalties including a loss of funding and a replacement of faculty and administration.

On Aug. 14 OPI released a list of schools failing to meet the requirements. Schools in Hill, Blaine, Liberty and Chouteau counties were on the list. The Hill County schools were Havre High School, Havre Middle School, Sunnyside Intermediate School, as well as the elementary schools, middle schools and high schools at Rocky Boy and Box Elder. Other schools included Harlem High School, Hays-Lodge Pole High School and Hays-Lodge Pole Middle School in Blaine County; Big Sandy High School in Chouteau County; and Sage Creek Elementary in Liberty County.

About 52 percent of Montana's 862 public schools - 452 of them - met the new standards, and 21 percent - 179 schools - did not, according to OPI.

The status of another 27 percent, or 231 schools, has yet to be determined because their overall enrollment or number of certain types of students is so small that officials have to look at individual test results. The results for those schools will be calculated by Dec. 1.

Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller said two weeks ago that he had filed a response.

Previously, Miller said he suspected the participation rate of 89 percent that OPI gave for fourth-graders taking the standardized tests was incorrect. Fourth- and fifth-graders attend Sunnyside.

No Child Left Behind requires that 95 percent of students in each grade being tested actually show up to take the test.

McMilin said OPI is finding that some schools were placed on the list incorrectly because some students who actually took the test were counted absent when the tests were scored. If a student answers fewer questions than the minimum required, the scoring program does not count the student as having participated in the test.

OPI has already caught all of the programming errors, and some of the schools have already been taken off the list, he said.

A variety of other statistical errors are possible in the test scores as well, McMilin said, because so many different types of information are being evaluated.

Big Sandy Public Schools Superintendent Bill Edwards said Big Sandy High School met the test score requirements, but like Sunnyside, it did not meet the 95 percent test participation requirement. He said the 11th grade had 26 students last year, but four of them were foreign exchange students and were not proficient in English, so the district decided not to test them.

"By having four not take it, that took us below the 95 percent park," Edwards said. He said he has spoken with an OPI official who believes Big Sandy High School will be taken off the list after the review.

Box Elder Schools Superintendent Bob Heppner said the middle school had filed a response to OPI's report because eighth-graders made the test standards in both reading and math this year. But because OPI calculated the result based on a three-year average, he said, the eighth grade was listed as not meeting the standard.

"When we took a three-year average we dropped down," Heppner said. "So we're protesting because we were supposed to show yearly progress and we did."

Heppner said the elementary school and the high school did not file responses. The high school was placed on the list because the 11th grade did not meet the participation requirements, he said. That was because schools are required to count their enrollment about a month before the testing date, and the 11th grade saw a decline in enrollment between that count and the test date. He said it would be helpful if enrollment was counted the week the tests are taken.

Heppner said the elementary school was below the required test scores in reading, but that the school had already started restructuring - adding reading labs and programs to boost scores - to help it come into compliance.

Even schools that are on the list because one or more subgroups did not meet the minimum required test scores in reading and math could provide data to OPI to gain a "safe harbor" designation, McMilin said. If a school can prove that a subgroup that tested below the minimum requirements at least improved its score by 10 percent from the year before and also met the attendance requirements, it will not be considered out of compliance.

McMilin said safe harbor was designed because even in the best circumstances, not every school can make the standards right away.

"Even if everything was working perfectly, it is unrealistic to believe that changes could be made that quickly," McMilin said.

Some schools that did not file a request for a review did submit information to help OPI determine if they are eligible for safe harbor status, Lamson said.

According to OPI, 44 schools and 13 districts around the state are candidates for safe harbor status.

Eligible local schools include Harlem Middle School, Chinook Middle School, and Rocky Boy Elementary School, the document said.

Granbery said OPI hasn't determined yet if Chinook Middle School met the federal standards.

Rocky Boy Elementary School principal Sharon Patacsil said her fourth-graders as a whole met the test standards, but two subgroups of students - special education students and students with limited English proficiency - did not, and that's why the elementary school was put on the list of schools that failed to meet federal standards. So she had to figure out the test scores of those two groups for the past two years to show that scores had improved by at least 10 percent and that their attendance rate at school was 80 percent or higher.

Patacsil said the middle school and the high school at Rocky Boy were not eligible for safe harbor status because seventh and 11th grades as a whole did not meet the testing standards. If those schools do not improve, they could eventually lose their Title I funding, Patacsil said.

According to OPI's Web site, state Superintendent Linda McCulloch said the list does not accurately indicate the quality of Montana schools.

"Montanans need to know I do not in any way, shape or form believe this report comes close to accurately portraying the high quality of Montana's public schools," McCulloch said. "This report only looks at the specific measures required by the federal government. The measures are helpful, but only present a small piece of a very large picture."


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