On Oct. 24, Islesboro and North Haven residents opened their Saturday newspapers to read their schools had been identified by the state as “in need of improvement.” The list of 142 Maine schools, created as part of the federal No Child Left Behind act, identified schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP). Headlines labeled the schools as “failing” and “under-performing,” citing inadequate math and/or reading scores.

Many school districts were prepared for this news, having received notification of their status from the state earlier in the month. North Haven and Islesboro, however, had recently been assured by the Department of Education that they would not be on the list.

“Our letter from Commissioner Gendron on Oct. 8 indicated we were fine, that we had exceeded all of the participation and performance targets,” stated Barney Hallowell, principal of North Haven Community School. Likewise, Jon Kerr, the principal at Islesboro Central School, had been assured the week before that his school was doing well. “That was the most frustrating part, not knowing why we were on the list,” said Kerr. “We never received any clarification. I spent hours trying to figure out why we were on the list.”

Neither principal knew why the schools were on the list because both had been erroneously identified. The Department of Education, under pressure to immediately release the list of under-performing schools to the press and public, could not find required Average Daily Attendance reports for either school. Although North Haven and Islesboro schools had submitted these reports in June, the Department inaccurately reported the daily attendance averages as zero for both schools.

Since the list was first published, the Department of Education has corrected the error and removed North Haven, Islesboro and 19 other misidentified schools from the AYP list. Furthermore, Susan Gendron, Maine’s Commissioner of Education, sent an explanation and apology to both schools.

One size doesn’t fit all

North Haven and Islesboro are not failing schools. Instead, they were inaccurately stigmatized by the complex and confusing state and federal No Child Left Behind legislation. The act, signed into law in January 2002, was created by the federal government to create new levels of accountability in all U.S. schools. It requires each state to report the status of school performance, ranging from student scores on standardized tests to the years of education achieved by each school paraprofessional.

“There are 84 different reasons a school can be ‘listed’, many having no relationship to the actual level of academic achievement of students in the school,” Gendron wrote in her letter to North Haven Community School. Schools that are listed as failing to meet AYP for any reason face a series of increasingly drastic federally mandated consequences, many of which are not consistent with Maine statute and legislation.

Unfortunately, island schools are particularly susceptible to incorrect identification under the No Child Left Behind act. One provision requires every school to have a minimum percentage of students in each grade level who have demonstrated proficiency in reading and math, as measured by standardized tests. In large schools, the higher number of test takers will help average out inconsistencies in testing, thereby providing a fairly accurate snapshot of student performance. Small schools, however, have too few students to present a valid and realistic evaluation of the school. Cliff Island, for example, presently has only one fourth-grade student. Under the new legislation, that single student’s score would represent the AYP status for the entire school. The community could only hope the student does not have a bad testing day.

Maine’s Department of Education, however, recognizes the challenges presented by small schools. “The law was designed to fit a large-scale, urban school. The folks who set it up certainly have never attended, taught or administered in a Maine island school,” explained Jacqueline Soychak, a Team Leader in the Department of Education. In response, the state has implemented approved adaptations to the legislation to make sure all schools are being measured fairly and accurately. There must be a minimum number of 20 students in each grade to be assessed. If a school does not have 20 students, the state will add up to two of the previous years’ test scores in the same grade. “If a school still can not meet the minimum size, we will have the commissioner independently review the comprehensive plan for that school,” said Soychak.

Presently, there are only three island schools with student populations large enough to be assessed using percentage rates: Islesboro, North Haven and Vinalhaven. The remaining island schools, along with other small schools in the state, will be assessed as required by law. The accountability process, however, will involve a more comprehensive look at school and student performance, thereby maintaining an accurate representation of each small school.

Regardless of how they are being evaluated for the federal government, island schools are demonstrating their success in reaching all students. “Because of our small size, we have close teacher-student relationships, and we can give individualized attention. No kid can slip between the cracks,” said Islesboro teacher Bonnie Mowery-Oldham. Barbara Hoppin, the principal of Peaks Island School and Cliff Island Community School, agrees. “If you have a small school, you can sit down one-on-one with each child. We are successful because we adjust our teaching to meet the needs of each of our students.”

Danielle Hall is an Island Institute Fellow on Cliff Island.