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Moorhead, Hawley, DGF school districts' gains not enough

Earlier this summer, area school districts from Moorhead to Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton to Hawley got word that their math and reading state assessment scores, already comfortably above state averages, rose slightly this year.

But school officials had a narrow window to celebrate.

Weeks later, all three districts and several others in the area found out they had not met annual progress requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Modest test gains didn't keep pace with rising requirements as states strive to meet the law's goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014. Progress targets for groups such as special education students and racial minorities, in particular, tripped up most area districts.

The state Education Department released Adequate Yearly Progress data this week.

"It's disappointing," said Moorhead Superintendent Lynne Kovash of the district's failure to make AYP. "I just don't want to see all the work we've done and the progress we've made erased by AYP results."

Across the state, the number of districts making AYP fell dramatically. For the first time, Minnesota districts that failed to meet progress targets outnumbered those that did, 241 to 169. The results lent new urgency to concerns that schools will start failing to meet the law's requirements en masse as 2014 approaches.

There were some area success stories in 2008 AYP results. Lake Park-Audubon and Breckenridge - two districts that didn't make AYP last year because of their special education students' test performance - made the list of compliant districts this year. In Moorhead, the Red River Area Learning Center, where more than 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, made AYP, one of few state alternative schools that did.

But districts such as Moorhead and Hawley, which made AYP last year, fell short of state improvement requirements. In Moorhead, American Indian, special education and limited English proficiency students didn't meet reading requirements; American Indian and limited English proficiency students also fell short in math.

Schools and districts can only make AYP if each of eight subgroups represented by 40 or more students meets standards.

Because Moorhead's Robert Asp and Ellen Hopkins elementary schools haven't made AYP for two consecutive years, the district needs to provide transportation to its Reinertsen Elementary for students whose parents wish to transfer. Sanctions districts can face if they consistently miss AYP targets include offering free tutoring.

Hawley Superintendent Phil Jensen said the district missed its special education math target by a hair: "It was probably a matter of one incorrect question by one student." Hawley tests 28 students with disabilities in high school math.

D-G-F, which failed to meet AYP in special education each year since No Child Left Behind went into effect, succeeded in hitting targets for that group. But this time its Hispanic students, 8 percent of the student body, fell short in reading and math.

To Mary Cecconni of the state's Parents United advocacy group, the law, which aims to close the achievement gaps that plague minority students, can backfire: "How long is it before we start pointing fingers at these groups, and how long before we start trying to push them out of our schools?"

Parents United, long critical of No Child Left Behind, has also faulted the law for comparing, say, today's third-graders to last year's instead of measuring students' growth over time.

And, Cecconi said, the growing list of does-not-make-AYP districts suggests that the goal of universal proficiency by 2014, though laudable, is elusive: "With the existing system, 100 percent of districts won't be making AYP by 2014."