Districts try to keep pace as federal proficiency standards rocket to 100 percent by 2014

Long recognized as a model for academic excellence, the Irvine Unified School District continues to make gains on state assessments, posting an astonishing score of 924 on the most recent Academic Performance Index. Yet IUSD, along with nearly 80 percent of all school systems in Orange County, has recently been designated as a district in need of some improvement under a federal accountability system established by the No Child Left Behind Act.

How does a district like Irvine earn the so-called “Program Improvement” designation?

It gets a little complicated, but No Child Left Behind requires all districts that receive federal Title I funding to make what’s called “Adequate Yearly Progress,” or AYP, by hitting proficiency targets in English and math. These targets continue to rise each year, and it’s not enough for the student population as a whole to hit them; all significant subgroups must meet or exceed the same proficiency standards. (Additionally, schools are required to test at least 95 percent of their students and significant subgroups.)

Irvine easily surpassed its school-wide federal requirements in 2012, with 86.8 percent of its students rating proficient or better in English and 86.7 percent meeting that benchmark in math. (Those numbers are well above state and county averages.) But several statistically significant subgroups missed their targets in English and math for two consecutive years, triggering the status of Program Improvement. (You can learn more about Program Improvement by clicking here.)

IUSD is far from alone with this designation. According to the Orange County Department of Education, 22 of 28 O.C. school districts, or about 79 percent, have already entered Program Improvement, and the rest will follow within two years. That’s because the federal proficiency benchmarks were designed to rise to 100 percent by 2014, meaning a school or district will be deemed in need of improvement unless every student demonstrates proficiency in English and math.

“Unless the law is amended, the rising tide of federal proficiency standards will place every school and district under water within two years,” said Alan Schlichting, IUSD’s director of student support services. “Nevertheless, we won’t back down from the goal of universal proficiency, as we aim to identify and meet the needs of each student.”

Irvine already has one of the highest Academic Performance Index scores in the state, and the district continues to make gains on state exams while collecting countless accolades. At the same time, IUSD has long stressed a philosophy of continuous improvement that applies to all levels of the organization. Schlichting said officials are working hard on a number of proven initiatives to continue IUSD’s upward trajectory, including strategies to leverage effective classroom technologies and the implementation of the new California Common Core standards, which promote a deeper level of thinking and reasoning.