SMMUSD HDQTRS — A number of students with disabilities were not correctly counted during last year’s round of standardized testing, forcing state education officials to withdraw Malibu High and Lincoln Middle schools’ designations as California Distinguished Schools.

The highly-coveted designation is awarded to those schools that meet aggressive academic growth targets for all students, demonstrating progress in closing the achievement gap. Of the nearly 2,400 middle and high schools in California, only 259 were named California Distinguished Schools, according to the California Department of Education.

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District officials said they submitted the correct student information to the state to be embedded in testing materials so scores could be calculated and filed in the appropriate student subgroup. However, for some unknown reason, the district’s data was not uploaded properly so when tests were scored, the final results showed only a handful of students in the district with disabilities, raising a red flag. The majority of students with disabilities were included in another subgroup.

District officials alerted Department of Education about the error around October, the time when adjustments are allowed to be made. Updated scores were released in February of this year, but the error had not been corrected. During this time, representatives from the state were visiting Malibu and Lincoln as part of the selection process. This year, the selection process required schools to provide an in-depth description of two signature practices used at the schools that are replicable, and directly related to the success of their students.

The district submitted information a third and final time. The data was received and processed correctly, showing that both SMMUSD schools failed to meet growth targets. But that was after State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell made the announcement, congratulating the schools who earned the distinction, which incorrectly included Malibu High and Lincoln.

The schools notified the state and eventually the error was corrected.

“It was just such an unfortunate series of events with the timeline … ,” said Maureen Bradford, director of educational services for SMMUSD. “We’ve never had such a major data correction. It should have been corrected in February and we wouldn’t have proceeded to the next step, which was the visitation. It’s very unfortunate because these schools made it through the process.

“These are two incredible, high-performing and very distinguished schools by any definition and so it is really unfortunate. I’m confident both schools will apply again and be rewarded.”

Malibu High missed receiving the designation by 11 points (having achieved a one point gain), while Lincoln dropped significantly in terms of scores for disabled students, dipping by 24 points instead of hitting a 10 point growth target, Bradford said.

Critics of the school district point to the lack of a cohesive special education program. The district has come under fire for its dealings with special education parents and their children, especially when it comes to developing individual education plans, which detail the goals set for a child during a school year and the services needed to help that child reach those goals, such as extra tutoring or a language specialist.

Principals from both schools defended their faculty and their students, saying the loss of the distinction, while disappointing, is not a true reflection of the work done at each site.

“We’re all about doing the right thing,” Lincoln Principal Suzanne Webb said, referring to her decision to notify the state about the data error. “I honestly feel we are just as distinguished today as we were a month ago … so we are just going to move forward and keep doing the programs we are doing. We are going to work even harder for next time.”

Mark O. Kelly, principal at Malibu, said in an e-mail to parents that it was important to emphasize the positives and remember that Malibu is committed to ensuring all students achieve.

“We set high expectations for all students and strive to prepare them to meet these expectations,” Kelly wrote. “We have support structures in place to help students and individualize our programs for students with special needs. We give thanks to our community who advocate for our work and ensure that we have the resources necessary to support great teaching and learning. Most importantly, we embrace our amazing students and thank them for trusting that we will guide and prepare them for opportunities beyond their days at Malibu High.”

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