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Standards toughen, schools work harder to comply

While students, teachers and other school staff have been preparing for the next school year, the Montana Office of Public Instruction has been looking at how last year went.

Earlier this month, OPI released the Adequate Yearly Progress of Montana schools for the 2011-2012 school year. And while scores have continued to improve, they have failed to keep pace required by the No Child Left Behind Act a decade ago.

Among the 820 schools tested — including half of Montana's nearly 140,000 students — 74 percent did well enough, or "made AYP. "

AYP was a term that came out of NCLB in 2002, when the federal government required states to develop a peer-reviewed system of academic standards that would end with every student in the country being proficient in math and reading by 2014.

Montana's math standards started by requiring 51 percent of students to do well for two years. From 2007 to 2010, the standard stayed frozen at 68 percent, jumping to 70 percent during the 2010-2011 school year.

Now, in the last three years before every single child has to be good at math, the percentage required is jumping by 10 percent every year.

This year, 86 percent of Havre elementary students were proficient in reading and 62 percent were proficient in math, though the requirements were 89.6 percent in reading and 80 percent in math.

At Havre High School, reading proficiency was 89 percent and math proficiency was 65 percent, up from 2011's 78 percent and 62 percent.

In 2011, when the reading requirement was 84.4 percent and math was 70 percent, Havre elementary students were 83 percent proficient in reading and 63 percent in math.

This is the second year of "Identified for Corrective Action" for the high school and the sixth year for the elementary district.

In Montana this usually amounts to a district having to re-examine some policies and try harder next time.

Other states, as a part of their NCLB plan, set up emergency situations, where schools that did not meet the standards could be forced to pay for students to attend other schools, or, more drastically, taken over, with teachers and administrators fired to obtain stronger results.

Allyson Hagen, communications director for OPI, said that is not how Montana does things.

"We have a very strong local-control state, " Hagen said. "There were options... We took a different approach. "

There are a few districts in Montana that have never made AYP in the past decade of testing. Hagen said these districts reached out to OPI for help, and they have been working on a few programs over the past few years.

Hagen said OPI hopes it can learn a few lessons from these dire cases.

"I think at this point we are trying to learn some best practices to take to other districts that have problems with student achievement, " Hagen said.

When asked about the steep incline of standards over the next two years, Hagen said that it will hopefully not be as much of an issue for too much longer.

"NCLB is a federal law. It's been overdue for reauthorization for four years, " Hagen said. "After the November election, the expectation is Congress will finally pick it up and address all of the concerns that have come from states about the ways that this has been working and ways we could actually improve students. "

Even without that happening, the Obama administration has tried to work with states that are struggling with the standards by offering some conditional waivers, but Hagen said those plans didn't work for Montana.

"We spoke with our school partners, and they agreed that there is no funding to implement the changes required to get a waiver, " Hagen said.


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