English language proficiency standards too high?

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COLUMBIA - Columbia Public Schools haven't met the Annual Measurable Achievement Objectives for English Language Proficiency for seven years.

Annual Measurable Achievement Objectives (AMAOs) are standards for English Language Learner students set by the state as required by federal mandate. There are three specific goals districts must meet to pass the standards.

  • AMAO 1: calculated by the number of students showing improvement in learning English.
  • AMAO 2: calculated by the number of students achieving proficiency in English.
  • AMAO 3: calculated by English Language Learner scores on communication arts and mathematics standardized tests. 

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said the school district of Columbia is not alone in failing to meet those goals.

"Columbia is one of 35 districts in Missouri that haven't met the standards in seven years," said Director of Migrant Education Shawn Cockrum. "Only one school district in 2014 met the Annual Measurable Achievement Objectives, and that was the district of Clayton."

Shelly Fair, Columbia Public Schools English Language Learning Coordinator, said she's not surprised by those statistics.

"It's because of AMAO 3," Fair said. "While AMAO 1 and 2 measure progress and proficiency in English for students who it's not a first language for, AMAO 3 measures those students' standardized test scores in Communication Arts and Math. "

Fair said for now, the standardized test in Missouri is the MAP.

"The thing is, if our students are performing well on AMAO 1 and AMAO 2, which they are, eventually, AMAO 3, which measures achievement on the MAP test, should fall into place."

Becky Miller is the English Language Learner teacher at Oakland Middle School. She said while some students can show improvement in reading, writing, speaking, and understanding English, it can still be hard for them to apply their knowledge.

"One thing you have to understand about kids who grow up outside the United States, or grow up in a family in which English is not the first language, is that they don't have the same background knowledge as an average student," Miller said.

She said that's why she focuses on helping her students develop academic vocabularies.

"Words like relationship, dependent, avoid, all these words are used on standardized tests for not only communication arts segments, but for math and science sections too," Miller said.

Students who have been in the country for more than a year are required to take the full MAP test regardless of their level of English language proficiency.

Miller said that's simply not enough time for most students to understand a language enough to apply it academically.

"Science is telling us that it takes most kids five to seven years to become proficient in a new language," she said. "And that's if they can read and write in their first language."

For every year that school districts fail to meet the AMAOs, state sanctions increase in severity.

"The first year, the only thing a district has to do is notify parents of English Language Learner students that they have not met the standards," Cockrum said.

If a district doesn't reach the standards for four years or more, the state can technically remove federal funding for English Language Learner students, require the district to change its curriculum, or ask the district to remove any personnel responsible for the failure.

Cockrum said the state hasn't taken any of those more serious actions against school districts.

"I'm not nervous about any of those measures being enacted in Columbia," Fair said. "That's because we're not alone in not reaching that third AMAO standard. Like the data shows, only one school district actually met AMAO 3 in 2014."

Cockrum said one reason for so few schools meeting the third AMAO standard in 2014 is the fact that the baseline for the standards increases each year.

KOMU analyzed the data for schools across Missouri from 2008-2014 and discovered that in assessment year 2009, 179 school districts met AMAO 3, whereas in 2014, only one school district met AMAO 3.

Cockrum said he would not be surprised if the legislation regarding Missouri's Annual Measurable Achievement Objectives changes in the near future.

"We want the best educations possible for all of our students in Missouri," he said. "But I think if only one district is meeting a standard, I have to wonder if that's the best way to truly measure students' ability."