By John Lyon
Arkansas News Bureau
The state Department of Education has classified 137 of Arkansas’ 1,055 public schools as "achieving," meaning they have met their annual achievement targets, state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell announced last week.
Kimbrell said the number of achieving schools is down from 336 last year, the first year of the department’s current school accountability system. The number of schools classified as "needs improvement," meanwhile, has increased from 581 last year to 793 this year.
Kimbrell said that the numbers should not be interpreted to mean that more schools are failing.
"These are not schools that are failing their children. These are schools that typically have … difficult targets," Kimbrell said at a news conference announcing the release of the department’s 2013 school accountability data.
Data on individual schools is available on the Department of Education’s website.
Under the system, each school has annual measurable objectives, or AMOs, for reducing gaps in proficiency, academic improvement and, for high schools, graduation rate.
It can be difficult for high-performing schools to achieve their AMOs, Kimbrell said.
"As these schools get more and more students proficient and advanced, you run into what we call the ceiling effect," he said. "When you have smaller numbers to move, moving percentages of those students above that cut is difficult."
Students are classified in two categories: All Students and the Targeted Achievement Gap Group," or TAGG. To be classified as "achieving," a school must meet AMOs for both groups in either proficiency or improvement. A school that meets its AMOs for both can be classified as "exemplary."
Kimbrell said education officials were still calculating the number of exemplary schools Tuesday and expected to release that information on Wednesday. The number of achieving schools will change when that number is released, he said.
The system has two other classifications for schools: "Needs improvement focus," for the 10 percent of schools that had the largest gaps between TAGG and non TAGG students last year, and "Needs improvement priority," the lowest classification, for the 5 percent of schools that had the lowest proficiency in literacy and math last year.
The Department of Education targets schools in the lowest two classifications for special assistance. If a priority school does not make significant progress within two years, its district can be classified as academically distressed, which could lead to a range of sanctions, including a state takeover of the district or annexation to another district.
Kimbrell said last Tuesday there are now 87 needs improvement focus schools, down from 109 last year, and 38 needs improvement priority schools, down from 48 last year. Schools can only move up from those categories; they cannot move down to them from higher categories.
Kimbrell said he was pleased that four schools had moved up from needs improvement priority to achieving and that 14 schools had moved from needs improvement focus to achieving. He attributed those schools’ progress to hard work by students, teachers and administrators.
State education officials created the accountability system under a waiver that allowed them flexibility under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Kimbrell said the goal of that act, that 100 percent of students attain proficiency by 2014, is impossible to achieve.