Big Reduction in Achievement Target Even Stumps School Officials


(Friday, February 15, 2008 10:31 AM EST)

Arlington school officials found a creative, and effective, way to make sure students met one of the school system's “strategic goals” for academic success last year: they lowered expectations significantly.

So significantly that, when questioned by the Sun Gazette, school officials couldn't fully account for why they had made such a steep cut in expectations.

At issue is the school system's target of having students take, and earn qualifying scores on, Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) tests.

In recent years, school officials have pushed more students to take college-level AP and IB courses and the tests that are administered at the end of the year. County school officials want both the number of students participating, and those who succeed on the tests to increase.

In the 2006-07 school year, 36 percent of students in grades 9 to 12 had taken at least one AP or IB course. That was up from 34 percent a year before, and was above the school system's target.

In 2006-07, 63 percent of students taking AP and IB tests earned qualifying scores on the exams, which will likely earn them college credit. That was above the target of 62 percent.

But . . . that target of 62 percent was way down from the target 67-percent passing rate that the school system had expected from students just a year before. Cutting the target by 5 points is all but unprecedented.

Why the big cut in expectations? Perhaps, at least in part, because only 61 percent of students had scored well enough in the 2005-06 school year, when the target had been 67 percent.

“Every year, the [School] Board takes a look at the strategic plans, and they look at indicators and make tweaks depending on what happens that year,” school system spokesman Frank Bellavia told the Sun Gazette. “The number fluctuates every year.”

When asked by the paper about the big drop in expectations from one year to the next, the school system's director of planning and evaluation was partially stumped.

“I thought this was really very odd,” Kathy Wills acknowledged when queried about it. “I had no recollection why. I'm a little confused as to why we didn't set [the 2006-07 target] at 65.”

Wills noted that current plans are to increase the pass-ate target in coming years: to 64 percent in 2007-08, then 65 percent, 68 percent and 69 percent in subsequent years. The target percentage of students participating in AP and IB courses also is slated to increase annually, reaching 38 percent by the 2010-11 school year.

School officials presented School Board members with information on updated achievement goals at the board's Feb. 14 meeting.

Some of the news was good: The percentage of students earning a standard or advanced diploma in the 2006-07 school year was 89 percent, up from 85 percent a year before, and above the '06-'07 target of 86 percent.

But other news was not so good: In the 2006-07 school year, the school system reported that 2.2 percent of students dropped out, above the previous year's rate of 1.7 percent and above the target, also 1.7 percent.

The dropout rate varied by race and ethnicity: It was 0.9 percent for white students, 1.9 percent for Asian students, 2 percent for black students and 4.6 percent for Hispanic students.

School Board members usually spend significant time discussing the strategic indicators and tweaking expectations, but the discussion rarely reaches the broader public. When queried by the Sun Gazette, “we were thrilled to have someone looking at [the strategic plan] so closely,” Wills said.

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