Mid-Columbia schools' poor showing on a federal school accountability index does not reflect what's really happening in the classroom, school officials and experts say.
Recent accolades back that up - several Tri-City schools at the bottom of the federal index just received awards for a job well done with their kids.
But despite the successes, schools from Prosser to Othello and from Connell to Kennewick are not making Adequate Yearly Progress - or AYP, numbers released by the state this week show.
Many of them - 17 schools - have not met the federal standard for so many years that they are in Step 5, a designation that under certain scenarios can trigger harsh sanctions from the federal government.
AYP is a provision of the federal education act known as No Child Left Behind. It mandates that a certain percentage of students must pass state tests in reading and math every year. The required percentage increases every few years, with all students having to pass the tests in 2014.
To ensure that no child, regardless of circumstance, is left behind, the passing percentages are measured separately for eight groups of students - five ethnicities, low-income, special-needs and English-learning students.
The same percentage of students in each category must pass the tests.
If not enough special-needs kids in a school don't pass math, for example, the school is marked as not making AYP. If this happens two years in a row, the school enters Step 1 and is subject to sanctions.
Schools then must notify parents and teachers of the AYP status and must put measures in place to raise the percentage of kids passing the tests. The measures required get more involved with each year a school doesn't make AYP, i.e. moves toward Step 5 designation.
If it receives federal money marked for schools with high-poverty populations, it must take 10 percent of that money and use it exclusively to boost the test scores of the group of kids that didn't pass the tests the previous year.
And if it gets down to Step 5 and is among the lowest-performing schools in the state within that group, it must put measures in place that could include replacing the principal and many teachers.
None of the schools in the Mid-Columbia has been told by the state to take such drastic measures. But all have taken other steps to get more students to pass the state tests.
In Kennewick, the focus of improvement efforts is Park Middle School, said Chuck Lybeck, the district's associate superintendent.
Not a single category of kids at Park made AYP in reading or math this year. The school, which has a high rate of poverty and English learners, is in Step 5.
It just received a $25,000 state grant reserved for Step 5 schools. The money is paying for efforts to fit what's being taught in reading and math classes to what's asked on the state tests, Lybeck said.
The school also started testing kids in math this week to see in which specific areas they need help, he said.
Richland this fall started using a system called STAR2, said Mike Hansen, executive director for K-5. Teachers go through classrooms in teams with a consultant to observe other teachers.
They do this not to evaluate or criticize, but to ask themselves how they would have taught the same material or what could have been done better.
"It's like the rounds a doctor does with interns in a hospital," Hansen said.
Teachers from Kiona-Benton City schools have traveled to other districts with similar demographics to examine if any of their teaching methods are worth using, said Superintendent Rom Castilleja.
The district has introduced an advisory period, during which teachers work with students who are struggling, he said.
Pasco has a computerized system called StudentTrack that was developed by teachers. It helps them look at how students are doing on a weekly or even daily basis, said Cal Bacon, assistant superintendent.
Nine schools in Pasco get the improvement grants from the state. They've used them successfully to bring up their math scores. But now students' not passing reading tests has earned many schools in Pasco red marks on AYP results.
Only a handful of schools in the Mid-Columbia made AYP this year. And the area is representative of what's happening around the state.
About 1,400 of the nearly 2,200 schools in Washington did not make AYP, said Bob Harmon, the state's assistant superintendent for special programs and federal accountability.
"The trajectory suggests that at some point all of them wouldn't (make AYP)," he said.
That shows the flaws of a system that holds all kids to the same standard, no matter their background, officials say.
All students in Washington take the same tests per grade level. A child of migrant workers in Benton City, who's just learning English, has to answer the same questions on a reading-comprehension test as a well-off student in Bellevue whose house is filled with books.
The schools in Kennewick, Pasco, Benton City and Othello who haven't made AYP in years are predominantly low income; many have high percentages of English language learners.
"One of the challenges with AYP data is that it doesn't take outside factors into account," Castilleja said.
A lot of people move to the Tri-Cities for work. Their kids had been going to school in other states and are often below grade level as far as Washington state tests are concerned, Hansen said.
"Mobility is a big issue," Lybeck said.
So is population growth, especially in Pasco. The district hires a lot of new teachers every year for its ever-growing student body. Those teachers need to be trained for what's expected in Pasco classrooms before they can perform at the level of veteran teachers, Bacon said.
And poverty has been shown to affect student performance. More than 70 percent of children in Pasco live in poverty. None of its schools made AYP in the latest report.
Yet several of its schools just received awards. New Horizons High School - which is in Step 5 - on Friday was lauded by the state superintendent during a press conference in Olympia. It was designated one of 22 Innovative Schools in the state.
And James McGee and Ruth Livingston elementaries recently were named Schools of Distinction, two of only five in Southeast Washington to be praised for improving performance. McGee is in Step 1 and Livingston in Step 2 of not making AYP.
All over Pasco, math scores have risen. Graduation rates are climbing, too.
And that's the problem: AYP measures yearly status, not growth, said a University of Washington researcher.
"AYP is not a great measure of what schools contribute to student success," said Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Education Data and Research.
If a group of students starts in the bottom 20 percent and its school manages to take it to the 50 percent range, it's still not passing the state tests, which means the school gets no credit under AYP for the vast improvement of its students.
Schools where students are well prepared before they ever walk in the classroom are much more likely to attain the AYP status, Goldhaber said.
"I like the idea of school accountability," he said. "But I don't think AYP is a terribly good way of doing that."
- Jacques Von Lunen: 582-1402; email@example.com