MPS’ Failures Mount, More Schools Cited by Feds

MacIver News Service–[Milwaukee, Wisc…] Despite increased federal funding and increased attention placed on student achievement, more Milwaukee Public Schools failed to meet the minimal standards set by the U.S. Department of Education this year than last.

Wisconsin’s top education officials, however, downplayed the significance of those findings.

Eleven more MPS schools failed to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act this year than last year. The total number of Schools Identified for Improvement (SIFI) is now 62.

“These reports, based off a snapshot-in-time assessment, present one view of a school’s progress and areas that need improvement,” said State Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Tony Evers in defense of all Wisconsin schools and districts that did not make the mark. “I urge parents and community members to consider a fuller picture of school achievement than what Wisconsin must do to fulfill NCLB requirements.”

While 51 schools were designated SIFI in 2009, after consolidations and closings, MPS says there were a total of 47 schools identified last year and will eventually be 50 this year.

Even though the number of schools failing has increased, the district insists they are making progress. Of the 62 failing schools this year, 22 made “Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).” Last year, there were only 8 SIFI schools listed as AYP.

When a school fails to make AYP in the same subject area for two years in a row, it becomes identified as in need of improvement. Schools identified for improvement must offer special tutoring programs for students and give parents the option to send their children to another, higher performing school.

AYP measurements are based on the performance of  standardized test  scores in math and reading, as well as attendance rates. Schools can also fail to make AYP if certain socio-economic or racial subgroups fail to meet proficiency standards in math and reading.

“It is good to see continued improvement in the number of schools making Adequate Yearly Progress,” said retiring MPS Superintendent William Andrekopoulos. “In addition to seeing that improvement, we want to see more schools being removed from the SIFI list altogether. Everyone in the district is working hard to improve student progress.”

However for the fifth straight year in a row, the US Department of Education has listed Milwaukee Public Schools as a District Identified for Improvement (DIFI); a designation that troubles the administrator in charge of improving the schools’ performance.

“The overall news is bad and highlights the urgency of the situation here in Milwaukee,” said Marsha Staum, MPS director of district and school improvement.

Both DPI and the US Department of Education require Districts Identified For Improvement to develop or revise an improvement plan to address areas of need.

Staum points out that the test results behind this year’s DIFI and SIFI listings are from November. Meanwhile MPS’s plan for improvement was drawn up last summer, just months prior to when the testing took place.

“A lot of work has happened since then,” Staum said. “I think what we’re doing is a continuing effort to bring consistency in curriculum and to expect results that fast is unrealistic.”

For example, Staum said, the district has been working to standardize reading programs across the district.

“Next year for the first time all of our schools will be under the same reading curriculum. That’s a huge change. We’re going from a district of schools to a real school district,” said Staum.

The district has been working on its math scores for several years and Staum said they’ve seen some improvements in that area. However, progress appears to be slow and drops off in higher grades. Last year math proficiency in 4th grade was 58.6% while in 10th grade it was 28%.

To further help the district improve test scores, MPS was awarded $176 million in stimulus funds this year, and will continue to receive payments next year. The district expected that to make a big difference.

“American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding will allow for implementation of new ideas as well as expanding and improving existing programs. Initiatives that will be executed include increasing parent involvement, expanding early childhood education, improving student achievement, improving teacher effectiveness and improving data driven decision making and accountability,” according to the improvement plan dated October 2009.

Despite the setbacks this year, Staum says MPS is now headed in the right direction, and expects to see continued improvement next year.