Not Safe in the Harbor

I recently began a new position as an Academic Coach at a middle school. At the end of my second week the principal asked me to present at our next staff meeting on an aspect of NCLB entitled “Safe Harbor”. As the Academic Coach my responsibilities include professional development and I love the idea of presenting ways to differentiate instruction, engage students and classroom management, but learning about “Safe Harbor” made me feel anything but “safe” when it came to presenting in front of a room full of middle school teachers.

I work at a school that is in Year 5 of Program Improvement status. What that means is for over 5 years we have not met our Annual Measurable Objectives (AMO) on the yearly state test. The state determines the annual measurable objective (AMO) we must reach in order to show students are making adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward the goal of all students reaching proficiency in English language arts and mathematics. As a result of “Program Improvement” status the district has moved teachers to other school sites, extended the school day and replaced the principal as part of restructuring the school site.

As I began my research on “Safe Harbor” I was actually quiet surprised to learn another way we could meet academic benchmarks. If the number of non-proficient students in a particular subgroup decreased by 10% from the previous year we would meet “Safe Harbor” target. Our school could exit “Program Improvement” status if we meet this target for two consecutive years. Thus if you have 100 students in the English language learner subgroup and 80% or 80 of the students are not proficient only 10% or 8 additional students would need to move to proficient in order to meet Safe Harbor.

Although this seemed like a simple calculation the complexity lies when you start comparing groups of students from one year to the next. What is 10% with one particular group could be significantly more with another. For example of the 200 seventh grade students who took the 2010 test, about 50% were proficient in ELA. Thus 100 students were not proficient and 10 additional students would need to move to proficient. However of the incoming seventh grade students their previous year scores revealed only 40% proficient. 120 students were not proficient, so you see the calculation is much greater than moving just ten percent.

There is a danger in comparing different groups of students from one year to the next and if we are going to look at data we should really look at growth. School growth should be examined by where students begin and determining if there is growth at the end of the year. We are oversimplifying this process by making group comparisons from one year to the next. As a mom of two I know what works for one of my boys will not just work for the other and although I may teach them the same way their progress and “growth” will be significantly different. As I wrapped up my presentation for “Safe Harbor” I wondered what kind of response I would receive from middle school math teachers who are probably still in awe that fifth grade mathematics determines if schools are making progress.