August 21, 2008
Town wins appeal over ed test


GOFFSTOWN - Three students who refused to take an exam last fall set off a domino effect that ultimately resulted in a state declaration that Goffstown was a school district in need of improvement.

This month, the state board of education reversed that decision after local school administrators said it violated the spirit of federal law.

Goffstown was labeled a district in need of improvement, or DINI, based on a complex calculation that takes into account the percentage of students who take state standardized tests like the NECAP. The high school needed 95 percent of its 11th-grade students overall and in each subcategory to participate, according to Superintendent Stacy Buckley.

Three students out of 42 who were in the subcategory for educational disabilities did not mark any answers on the reading NECAP test. Only 37 students did. If 40 students had participated in the exam, then the school district would have met the 95 percent threshold, which is mandated in the No Child Left Behind Act, a federal law.

The school district knows three of the five other students were in attendance that day, but for some reason were not involved in the test-taking process. "These couple of kids forced us to be a district in need of improvement," Buckley said.

On Aug. 13, Goffstown officials went before the New Hampshire Board of Education to appeal their DINI status. Since the district knows the students actually were at school the day the test was administered, Buckley said it proposed that their presence combined with their refusal to actually mark any answers was a form of participation.

"By them not participating in this case, they were participating," Buckley said. "This is not what No Child Left Behind is about. It's about students making progress and we've made progress."

Even if the students had scored perfect zeros on the reading exams, the district still would have made sufficient progress based on the overall averages. All a student has to do to have the test count for state statistical purposes is make one pencil mark in the exam paper, Buckley noted. 

"What are we supposed to do?" Buckley said. "Pick his hand up and make a mark in the book?" Buckley did not know whether the parents of the three non test-takers had been notified. She said that at the time, educators could not know the far-reaching impact their non-participation would have on the entire school district.

Since then, she said the district has focused on making sure all students understand the importance of the NECAP tests. So far, those efforts have been successful, garnering 100 percent participation among juniors in the science NECAP, which was administered statewide for the first time this spring. A district is labeled "in need of improvement" if its students do not make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, on their tests for two years in a row, according to a state press release. How AYP itself is determined is yet another complex of calculations, with test participation rate being an important factor.

In 2007 and 2008, the Mountain View Middle School did not make AYP in reading and math, according to records posted on the state Department of Education Web site. Mountain View is a school that needs improvement, according to the DOE.

Had the state insisted that the entire district needed improvement, Buckley said the district would have spent precious staff time drafting a plan outlining specifically how it would address the problem.

"It just puts a lot of oversight on us . . . a lot more staff time developing a plan instead of working with students," she said.

The DINI ruling also would have had financial consequences, imposing restrictions on how federal Title I funding is used in the district. Goffstown applies the money toward professional development and salaries for some teaching positions, according to Buckley.

Besides time and money, "It is some of the stigma of being a district in need of improvement," Buckley said.

This is not the first time Goffstown has won such an appeal at the state level. In 2006, the district also prevailed in its bid to be de-classified as a district in need of improvement. The district, however, was unsuccessful with a similar appeal for Goffstown High School.


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