Source: Sherman Publications

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Clear Lake among schools with widest achievement gap

by Lance Farrell

August 08, 2012

Michigan's exemption from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education standards granted on July 19 has landed Clear Lake Elementary on a new list.

As required by the federal waiver, Clear Lake has been identified among 10 percent of Michigan schools with the widest student achievement gap.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan said Michigan's release from federal education guidelines "is great news for our students and our schools." But one of the under-reported consequences of the federal exemption was that Michigan must adhere to new achievement criteria.

Venessa Keesler, Head of Evaluation, Research and Accountability for the Michigan Department of Education, said the long awaited exemption "waived a number of the NCLB things, . . . but it did require that we figure out a way to identify Priority, and Focus and Reward schools."

The refined emphasis is now on assessment discrepancies within student populations. Keesler said that under the previous assessment model, tests from high achieving kids and low achieving kids would coalesce into an acceptable target score. But this masked real student performance, Keesler argued.

The new "metric finds the lowest and the highest achieving kids --regardless of demographic subgroup -- and says for 10 percent of the schools within the state, your gap is bigger than average--a lot bigger than average; in fact, it's one of the worst gaps in the state. That's what Clear Lake Elementary will be looking at."

This isn't to say that the State of Michigan is no longer concerned with historically under-served groups. "We're still concerned with demographics (and) we're still watching that, but . . . we want to focus on achievement first and then demographics," Keesler assured.

Most schools in the new Focus list are Title I schools, and as such are required to set aside 10 percent of the Title I funding toward reducing the achievement gap among their students. Clear Lake is not a Title I school, however, so the financial consequences won't be enforced. But "we would obviously encourage them to go through a lot of the same steps that the Title I Focus schools are doing which is look at your data, figure out where your gaps are, develop a plan, and think about things like differentiated instruction," Keesler suggested.

The newer strategy is to find the worst gaps in achievement and by focusing attention and intensive interventions on those schools, the idea is "as those schools improve they move up and more fall in. It's kind of a rolling intervention strategy versus the more one-size-fits-all adequate yearly progress," Keesler said.

Clear Lake was the only school identified in the Oxford district with excessive achievement gaps. "Clear Lake is a high performing elementary school in our district, and has been for many years. (It is) probably our top performing elementary historically, said Dr. James Schwarz, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction for the Oxford School District. State administrators recognize the excellence present at Clear Lake. Keesler described the elementary as "one of the Focus schools that has a relatively high overall percentile ranking . . . (But) some of their improvement metrics are declining, . . . (and) they have a gap between their top thirty percent and bottom thirty percent of students in every tested subject."

Oxford administrators expressed a ready willingness to meet the latest challenge. "We're disappointed," said Schwarz, "but we're taking it very seriously."

"We will be getting together with the staff, we will plan on strategies that we will submit to the state, and we will incorporate those in our school improvement and district improvement plans," Schwarz promised.

"We're going to analyze our interventions, we're going to analyze who's eligible for those interventions. Are we missing kids that should be taking part in these specialized pullout programs that for some reason we're missing? We're going to go back and review all of that and really get a picture of what's happening, who's being missed if anybody and also analyze the interventions that we have in place and look at the tracking of how those are working" within Clear Lake.

The new categories have just been assigned, yet they aren't without controversy. As Keesler noted, "if next year the gaps close state-wide by a lot, you may see schools with even smaller gaps ending up on the list. And that's something that we have committed to watch. (One) problem with the ranking is that if everybody is doing better, at some point who you are identifying isn't doing poorly anymore."

Schwarz echoed Keesler's concern. "In some case your status can be somewhat left to chance. From year to year you could do virtually nothing and you could get off the list, depending on how everyone else around you does. Or you could pour a ton of efforts into new initiatives and interventions and still stay on the list."

"That is the problem with these normative systems," Keesler conceded. "One of the things that is true about the ranking is you can look better if every one else is worse." To compensate for the potential for skewed results, the MDE promises to maintain criterion-based proficiency targets for schools to set and meet.

Though not satisfied with the new grouping, Schwarz is sympathetic to the constraints placed on the state administrators, and hopes they see that "we're not playing with widgets here, we're playing with kids and their ability levels. You can't control it like you can control a product on a conveyor belt."

Keesler agreed with Schwarz, and stressed that "state-wide assessments and . . . accountability systems really shouldn't be the end goal—they should be the baseline. They should be the minimum that we would expect everybody to be doing. And from there, we would hope that the locals would visualize education in a more nuanced way for their student population."

Keesler was quick to recognize that a standardized test cannot "capture everything about what good education is. It won't by the nature of what is has to be." She was impressed with the interventions and initiatives already underway in the Oxford school district.

"When local do things like sit down and creatively think about what's important in education . . . that's a very exciting part of the process, and one that you wouldn't want to interfere with by mashing it into a state test"