Guest Column

It’s Year Five, and We’re Still Not Making Adequate Progress

by Edward D. Westervelt

Our high school of 1,200 students has made major strides over the last five years, and the staff continues to work hard to improve learning and the lives of the children we serve.

But among Red Bank Regional High School’s many attributes, there is one we’d love to shed — the NCLB label of “in need of improvement.”

We believe the designation imposed by the federal law is punitive and, by focusing on test scores at one moment in time, fails to recognize the “value added” that’s been a vital part of our efforts to raise student performance.

Although we have steadily increased the number of proficient subgroups, for several years we’ve missed one or more of the 41 indicators used to measure student progress in New Jersey high schools under No Child Left Behind. However, we hit the mark in all categories in 2007, temporarily placing Red Bank Regional “on hold.” Then, our 2008 scores dipped in several subgroups, putting us back on the improvement list.

In New Jersey, juniors are tested annually in language arts and math, with increasingly higher benchmarks defining proficiency. The state Department of Education added an end-of-year biology exam in May 2008, and next year will administer an Algebra 2 exam to all students.

Multiple Initiatives
Diverse school districts like Red Bank Regional, which is located in central New Jersey, are presented with a daunting challenge. Through NCLB’s required disaggregation of student populations into defined subgroups, we have students who belong to more than one subgroup. Their test scores thus affect multiple achievement ratings, particularly those subgroups that have been underperforming.

Red Bank has more than 20 students (the number required by the state for reporting purposes) in every category or student subgroup measured by NCLB. Also, the school has had 35 (the N factor) or more special education students in the 11th grade over the last several years. Along with a growing group of English language learners and a sizable economically disadvantaged population, approximately 13 percent are classified as special education students. Minority students make up roughly 25 percent of the high school population.

Improving the test scores of these students takes time and much effort. Over the past decade, the school has introduced many initiatives to improve student achievement, even prior to the federal law. We’ve eliminated lower-level classes, while supporting lower-achieving students through tutorials. We started a school-based youth services program with funding from the state Department of Human Services supplemented by a newly formed, dedicated foundation.

Moreover, we added 14 new Advanced Placement courses, while subsidizing costs of the AP exam, which is now required for any student taking an AP course. We were proud to report last year that 70 percent of the 307 students who took the AP exam scored three or better!

We also have extended the school year for at-risk 8th graders to smooth their transition to high school by creating a summer program called Summer Slam. We gained community support five years ago in passing a $15 million bond referendum to enclose open-space classrooms. Additionally, we renovated the high school to create an Academy of Information Technology and provided additional space to expand the Visual and Performing Arts Academy offerings. We have revamped instruction for non-English speakers, creating an English as a second language program designated as a model program by the New Jersey Department of Education.

The academy approach has worked well for some, but many students in the high school are not part of any academy. So, during the 2007-2008 school year, we created a freshman academy with three houses to better monitor 9th graders during this critical transition year. We are now creating a structure that will accommodate all students in an academy. Significantly, last fall we were notified we would be receiving a $1.25 million federal Smaller Learning Communities grant, one of only two schools in our state to do so.

Four additional theme-based academies will be developed for students in grades 10 through 12. One will be an International and Cultural Studies Academy leading to the International Baccalaureate diploma. (We are waiting to learn whether our application as an IB school is approved.)

Also, an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) component was built into the grant, along with funding to hire a reading specialist and additional part-time tutors.

Red Bank Regional has invested heavily in the professional development of its teachers. Working with a consulting firm, Innovative Designs in Education, we’ve sent nearly 90 percent of our teachers to summer workshops on problem-based, differentiated instruction. These teachers subsequently received laptop computers and individual mentoring throughout the year following their initial training as they implemented new instructional strategies.

A Flawed Design
Will these efforts move us off NCLB’s list of schools failing to meet adequate yearly progress? Improving test scores forces a redirection of available resources, which in New Jersey are limited due to state-imposed budget caps. Competing interests vie for the limited funding and create tensions among administrators, teachers and even board members.

The problem is not that the school is failing to improve. It is improving! The problem is not that the teachers are ineffective. They are effective! The problem is not that the school administrators fail to use data to make informed decisions about curriculum and instruction or that they fail to monitor results. They do!

The problem is not with our school. The problem is that NCLB is flawed in how it measures success and failure.

Edward Westervelt is superintendent of the Red Bank Regional High School District in Little Silver, N.J. E-mail: Ewestervelt@rbrhs.org