Meeting a new standard

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 14, 2003

Federal education standards could cause some trouble for schools in Austin, but most administrators say the program is philosophically sound.

President George W. Bush's plan, No Child Left Behind, uses student testing to determine public schools' effectiveness. Schools that do not achieve state-determined standards in reading and math or show adequate yearly progress toward those standards over two years start getting penalized.

In March, Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke said about 40 percent of elementary schools in Minnesota could be labeled as under-performing based on an analysis of last year's simulation tests.

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Sumner Elementary School in Austin will likely be on that list.

In the 2000-01 school year, fifth grade students at Sumner tested below the 1420 mark required by the state.

The 2001-02 tests did not count because it was the first run, a simulation of what was to come, but for this year's tests, administrators in Austin said Sumner will likely fail.

"All it will take is one little subgroup to fall below," Director of Educational Services Sheila Berger said. "My gut instinct is we're identified."

On July 31, the results of this year's tests will be published, and Austin will know for sure if Sumner, or any other school, was flagged by the state.

Administrators say the change is needed

Administrators are concerned about incorporating the standards given the current budget situation and time restrictions, but most agree with the principles of the law. They said basic skills have not gotten enough attention.

"Right now, one-third of the kids going into high school can't read a newspaper and can't do basic math," Austin High School Principal Joe Brown said. "Is that the type of community you want to live in?"

Superintendent Corrine Johnson said it should not have taken a law like this to get the district's attention.

"We shouldn't be forced into bringing that lower third of students up," she said.

The district has experience

"Minnesota is now doing the same kind of thing that Texas is doing there," Southgate Principal Daniel Posthumas said.

No Child Left Behind is modeled after the system in Texas, where Bush was governor for six years.

Posthumas was both a teacher and assistant principal in Texas before coming to Austin. He said the system has been good for schools that did not put enough of a focus on reading, writing and math skills. It made sure that those schools were constantly improving.

"If you dip below where you were in the past, there are some really strong motivators to get you back where you should be," he said.

There were a few complaints, from teachers and administrators, however. Most had to do with the testing method used to rate schools.

"There's no perfect system when tests are involved," Posthumas said

Posthumas said some students do not perform well on standardized tests, and if a student is not feeling well, or just bored, it could affect the results.

He is confident, however, the school will make the adjustment.

"Any change is difficult," he said. "But I think the teachers, students and administrators are up for the challenge."

Subject priorities are changing

Austin High School's graduation rate this year was 86 percent, above the 80 percent minimum, but Brown is concerned about falling behind in the future.

"We can't continue to do what we're doing," he said. "If we do, we're going to be taken over by the federal government."

To keep from getting put on the list of under-performing schools, next year the high school will double the math classes for incoming freshmen who failed to meet the math requirements in eighth grade. They also will be using the language lab and computer reading programs more for all students, Brown said.

Ellis Middle School is instituting a reading program called Soar to Success, which will be taught to the 25 percent of students at the lowest reading level.

Elementary schools are holding meetings with teachers from each grade level to restructure the focus in the classroom.

Johnson said the change is difficult. Traditionally, subject areas were given about the same amount of time.

"That's a real philosophical change," she said.

School officials said the work will be worth it.

The current education problems affect the whole community, Brown said, and the public needs to be involved.

"Twenty-six percent of kids in Mower County don't graduate from high school, and we wonder why we have a drug problem," he said. "This has to be a discussion that goes beyond the schools."

Matt Merritt can be reached at 434-2214 or by e-mail at