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Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

Guidance counselor Nicole Walters gives a make-up NECAP test to students at the Elm Street Middle School Thursday, October 6, 2011. NECAP testing is required as part of the federal No Child Left Behind act.
Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Schools, districts to learn whether they make the grade Tuesday

Being tagged as a failing school doesn’t come with the same stigma it did a decade ago, but that doesn’t mean school administrators won’t be paying attention Tuesday.

That’s when the latest round of Adequate Yearly Progress reports are released by the state Department of Education.

Local school administrators said Monday that the release of labels such as “school in need of improvement” won’t reveal nearly as much about schools or student performance as the numbers behind them.

“The stigma has been greatly reduced as the vast majority of schools in the state and the country have been identified,” Nashua Assistant Superintendent Brian Cochrane said Monday. “For us, it’s more of a measure of where we are getting growth, and where we need more improvement.”

Last year, nearly two-thirds of public schools across the state were determined to be “in need of improvement,” including 16 of Nashua’s 17 schools.

To be deemed as needing improvement, schools must fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress in either math or reading or both. The designations are based on the New England Common Assessment program, an annual assessment for students in grades 3 through 8, as well as high school juniors.

Interpreted properly, Tuesday’s report can be used to identify and correct weaknesses in curriculum to benefit students across the state, Cochrane said.

Enacted in 2002, the No Child Left Behind act required that by 2014 all students meet proficiency requirements in both reading and math.

The assessments divide students and measure them in subgroups, based on gender, race, socioeconomic level and language ability, among other categories.

If any one of the subgroups fails to meet performance standards, the entire school is determined to have failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress. If a school fails to meet the standards for two consecutive years, it is deemed to be “in need of improvement.”

Under this format, the number of schools deemed needing improvement has risen steadily, while the standard of universal proficiency has grown out of reach, administrators said.

Last year, 307 of the school’s 469 public schools drew the “improvement” label. That number was up from 183 schools in the 2007-08 school year.

“Most of us in the education field have felt that 100 percent is an unrealistic target,” said Elaine Cutler, superintendent of the Litchfield School District, which has one school designated as “in need of improvement.”

“Certainly, we work diligently to make sure that all students reach their full potential, but 100 percent of anything … is very difficult to achieve,” Cutler said.

Still, administrators find use in the raw data included in the reports, they said Monday.

Labels aside, the data can provide valuable glimpses at school and student performance, said Mark McLaughlin, assistant superintendent in the Merrimack School District.

Administrators can use the scores to find strengths and weaknesses in the school or district curriculum, and they can use this data to update its district education plans, he said.

“The information that we get from the state is always meaningful to us because what it tells us is where we need to improve and where we have improved,” McLaughlin said.

All six of Merrimack’s schools were deemed “in need of improvement” last year.

“If we were to take out who did or did not make AYP and eliminate the (in need of improvement) stuff, I think people would change overnight on their belief of how valuable the data is,” added Tim Kurtz, curriculum and assessment administrator for the state Department of Education.

“There’s good information there, but the way they are now, the labels are just misleading,” Kurtz said.

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or