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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 17, 2011

Tests determine
Award-winning school now needs improvement

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — A school honored last year with a statewide award for teaching the whole child is now on a list, based on test scores, of schools that need improvement.

The 56 special education students at Lynnwood Elementary School — who come from throughout the district — did not make what the state defines as “adequate yearly progress” in English. This landed Lynnwood on a list released Nov. 10 of Schools In Need of Improvement.

The district is now eligible for a grant of close to $30,000 to work on improvements.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow,” Superintendent Marie Wiles told the school board on Tuesday night. But she went on to say, “We have to look at this not as a curse but an opportunity” to serve students better.

Its SINI status puts Lynnwood “in the company of many, many excellent schools,” said Wiles, calling the designation “a statistical inevitability.”

Lynnwood is one of 1,325 elementary, middle, and high schools and 123 districts across New York State that have been identified for improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The number of schools identified for improvement is unprecedented, according to the State Education Department; last year, 102 schools and four districts were newly identified for improvement.

“For a school to be in good standing, all subgroups have to make AYP,” said Wiles, referring to adequate yearly progress. Subgroups include students who are learning English as a second language, students in various ethnic groups, students in particular socio-economic classes, or students with disabilities. Designation for a school is triggered when a subgroup fails to make adequate yearly progress for two consecutive years.

The Guilderland district has five elementary schools; Lynnwood draws special-education students from throughout the district.

Lynnwood has three self-contained classrooms with special education students, which is part of the reason it was designated, Wiles said. A school is not identified unless it has a critical mass of 30 students, she said, concluding, “If all of the students stayed in their home school, we may not have gotten this designation.”

“Historically, Lynnwood has always scored lower as a whole, because we house these programs in that building,” said Demian Singleton yesterday. He is the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction. He stressed, “It’s not a Lynnwood Elementary School issue; it’s a Guilderland Central School District issue.”

Passing tests

“We at Lynnwood face some unique challenges,” said the school’s principal, Alicia Rizzo in June when the district’s principals presented school report-card data to the board.

While acknowledging that the special-needs students — who are tested along with their peers in grades 3, 4, and 5 — did not make adequate yearly progress for 2009-10, Rizzo in June counted as successes that 79 percent of students were proficient in math and 77 percent were proficient in English.

She also said that the Lynnwood Building Cabinet is working “to develop opportunities for the staff to examine and assess” elements of the school’s literacy program.”

In an effort to make students better prepared for college and careers, the state raised the cut scores that would label students as proficient — that is in levels 3 or 4 — so consequently the percentages of students scoring in those categories fell.

“The bar keeps going up,” Wiles told the school board on Tuesday. “By 2013-14, all subgroups will have to make a score of 3.”

Singleton said that currently just 1 percent of special-needs students can be exempted from the testing requirements, and those are the most severely disabled.

Several elementary principals stressed to the school board in June, as the report-card data was presented, that they want to continue to educate the whole child and not simply teach to the test.

Lynnwood, under the direction of its former long-time principal James Dillon, who retired in 2010, developed a program with Dr. Mark Ylviskaer stressing students’ self-regulation. Ylviskaer worked initially and very successfully with a student at the school who had problems with self-control because of severe brain trauma. The program eventually spread throughout the school, used in general education classrooms as well. (To read several stories about the cutting-edge approach, go online to www.AltamontEnterprise.com and look under archives for March 18, 2010.)

In 2010, Lynnwood was one of four schools in New York State honored for teaching the whole child, being given the New York State Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Educating the Whole Child for the 21st Century Award. The practices used at Lynnwood were posted on the NYSASCD website and written about in its journals and newsletters.

“ASCD is very much in favor of accountability,” said Anthony Mellow, executive director of NYSASCD, at the time. “But we object to one test for determining a child’s success…People need to see it’s important to look beyond test scores. You want people to develop a love of school and lifelong learning.”

Asked if she thought the test results that led to Lynnwood’s designation were valid, Wiles told The Enterprise, “It is one tool and it gives us some information about how students perform…Does it tell the whole story? Absolutely not.”

She went on, “We’re in a system. This is a single benchmark…Right, wrong, or indifferent, it gives us pause. Having kids have the ability to read and write at a certain level is necessary…but I’m not sure it’s sufficient for kids of all ability levels.”

Wiles concluded, “The task of special education isn’t to erase disabilities but to give kids skills to compensate…Can we be better? Probably.”

Wiles referred questions about how the program that was developed under Dillon may have related to test scores to Singleton, since she was hired after Dillon retired.

“We try very hard not to live and die by the test,” said Singleton. “The time and energy spent on that program was extremely valuable. So much about kids and learning is not measured by a test. The kids who find success in school and after are kids who connect, who can collaborate, who know more than facts and figures.”

Last night, having read the Enterprise stories on the self-regulation program at Lynnwood, Wiles e-mailed The Enterprise, “About the relationship between this program and our recent SINI designation; I’m not sure that there is one.  The program to improve students’ self-regulation and the NYS testing and accountability system seem to have two different purposes and two different measures for success.”

What’s next?

Because Lynnwood was named a School In Need of Improvement, Guilderland is now required to complete a School Quality Review by Nov. 30; Wiles said the district had asked for an extension from the Board of Cooperative Educational Services district superintendent since Guilderland was not notified of the SINI designation until Oct. 28.

“You have to work fast,” said Wiles.

Special education school improvement specialists have since spent two half-days visiting Lynnwood, said Wiles.

The district must produce a review of Lynnwood with supporting documentation in six domains: collection, analysis, and uses of data; teaching and learning; school leadership; infrastructure for student success; professional development; and facilities and resources.

“We have to verify, justify, and elaborate on what we do in these six areas,” said Wiles. While such a report could take three months to complete, she said, “We have three weeks to do it.”

Areas that will be reviewed, Wiles said, include student behavior, service delivery, and literacy. “We’re smart to think of this as a district-wide question,” she said.

Wiles noted that, since “Lynnwood saw this coming,” the school is already focusing on literacy, as Rizzo had indicated in June.

A required comprehensive Improvement Plan, due at the end of January, will outline additional areas to work on, and itemize ways the $30,000 grant will be spent, said Wiles.

Asked yesterday if she believes it is realistic that all the special-education students taught at Lynnwood will test at the proficiency level by 2014, Rizzo said, “It’s absolutely a challenge, but this offers us an opportunity…to be reflective and look at it as a district challenge.”

The School Quality Review Team, she said, is made up of teachers, teaching assistants, and special-education administrators among others, and will review the six categories in depth “to see what opportunities there are to improve.”

Rizzo talked enthusiastically about Lynnwood’s “literacy collaborative,” which she said 98 percent of the staff voted in favor of last year. “They’re taking ownership and always striving for excellence,’ she said of faculty and staff at Lynnwood.

Two teachers have studied at Lesley University with Irene Fountas, who helped develop the benchmarks used at Lynnwood. “They’re staying current in how kids develop reading, writing, listening, and problem-solving skills,” she said of the two teachers, who are sharing what they’ve learned with their colleagues.

Rizzo also said that the work on self-regulation started under Dillon “is still part of the conversation here at Lynnwood.”

She concluded, “I’m very proud of Lynnwood, embracing challenges in a positive way.”

Board President Colleen O’Connell asked at Tuesday’s meeting if it is realistic to expect children with severe disabilities to score at Level 3 out of 4 on state tests as the government plans to require by 2013-14.

Wiles noted that states have an option to apply for waivers from the federal regulations, but concluded, “Unfortunately, we need to respond to requirements.”

“The Board of Regents is developing an NCLB waiver proposal to establish a better accountability formula that incorporates growth,” Education Commissioner John King said in a statement. “But we cannot and should not accept disappointing proficiency rates at the school or sub-group level. While the 2014 NCLB deadline for proficiency for all may not be achieved, it’s the right goal and it should be our goal. Our students are not graduating with the skills they need to succeed in college and careers. That has to change, and change now.”

President Barack Obama recently announced an initiative to make the federal standards more flexible, allowing the secretary of education to issue waivers to states. New York is currently planning to apply for waivers that would reduce or eliminate mandates that haven’t been effective in promoting student achievement.

The waivers, according to the education department, would not release districts from accountability for performance of student subgroups but, instead, would allow for accountability sanctions requiring more specific responses to student performance.

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