Virginia Finds NCLB Unreasonable
Children at Fairfax County's Holmes Middle School have been acing the state Standards of Learning exams.
But Holmes, along with hundreds of other Virginia schools, will likely be told in August that it "needs improvement" under the federal government's new No Child Left Behind law.
The label matters because schools that fall into the "needs improvement" category for two consecutive years must provide private tutors for students or allow them to attend other schools -- and pay their costs.
A school will acquire the label if any category of students -- including minority children, special education students and those who speak little English -- fails to make sufficient progress on SOL tests each year. Under the federal law, a school is performing adequately only if every subgroup progresses on the tests at the same rate as a school's total student body.
Opponents of the subgroup requirement say it is inflexible and will result in giving good schools bad names, with serious financial consequences. Proponents say the label will be applied fairly to thousands of schools that are failing to educate many students, particularly minority children.
In Virginia, the debate has an additional element. For years, the state has allowed students who have recently immigrated to the United States to skip their first round of SOL tests. Thousands of students took advantage of the exemption in May.
But federal officials said last month that Virginia should have tested those students. Under the law, any school that tested fewer than 95 percent of each subgroup of students, including the limited-English population, automatically must be labeled as needing improvement.
Virginia officials say the exemption issue will affect many schools with large immigrant populations, including Holmes, and they are engaged in a campaign to convince parents that this year's labels will say little about education at their local schools.
"If there's a whole bunch of schools in Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria that are meeting our state standards and yet they get hit with this label, they can say to their constituents that the president of the [state] Board of Education said weeks ago these numbers are lacking in credibility," said former board chairman Mark C. Christie, whose 18-month term as president ended Tuesday.
At Holmes, for instance, 64 of 103 eighth-graders enrolled in English for Speakers of Other Language courses took SOL tests in May, far fewer than the 95 percent required by the federal law. Principal Roberto Pamas said he thinks that the school's parents will understand.
"For our parents, we have been working with them to let them know that a label does not necessarily show what goes on inside a school," he said.
But the labels hurt, even if parents are enthusiastic about the education their children are receiving, said Francisco Millet, director of Fairfax's ESL program.
"For a local school who is looking at parents eyeball-to-eyeball who has to explain why their school is being characterized as a failing school, that's a very difficult position to be in," he said.
The federal ruling against Virginia's first-time exemption prompted Christie to write an angry letter to Eugene W. Hickok, U.S. undersecretary of education, last month.
Christie told Hickok that Virginia officials support the federal law, which requires that all children pass state tests by 2014. But he called the ruling on ESL students, and a department ruling requiring that the vast majority of special education students be tested, irrational and said it would be "unfair in the extreme" to use it to judge schools this year.
In an interview, Hickok said that Virginia officials have known for some time that they would have to do away with the exemptions because they are inconsistent with federal law.
"We didn't have much choice," he said. "The law is the law."
Hickok acknowledged that some schools with high SOL pass rates may be labeled low performing, but he said the law will force schools to look at the scores of minority students, often obscured by high average test scores.
"The achievement gap exists at some very good schools, and this really establishes a higher level of expectation," he said.
Some Virginia officials expressed concern that the public will learn to dismiss the labels, which could hurt efforts to improve schools.
"The schools that are really, really in trouble might get a pass or be sort of lumped together with the others," said Allen C. Griffith, a Fairfax City School Board member who has been active on a statewide committee addressing issues for students who do not speak English.
Next year, Virginia will test virtually all students still learning English, using alternative, simple-English versions of the SOLs. The federal government has approved that route, and many states are writing such tests.
Griffith said his committee has been encouraging Virginia for some time to start writing the alternative tests.
"It's difficult using hindsight to say 'what if,' " he said. "But I wish in retrospect we would have developed alternative assessments and avoided some of this."
Christie said developing the new tests in time for the school year that just ended would have been impossible. Without them, he said, it made little sense to test new English speakers.
Kathleen F. Grove, assistant superintendent for instruction for Arlington County, said school officials there talked about testing anyway but decided that it would be unfair.
"We were appreciative of the stand that Mr. Christie took," she said. "We did wonder what would happen, and now we know."
Rosalind S. Helderman
Law Redfines Va.'s Approach To SOL Exams
July 7, 2003
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES