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NCLB Outrages

Easing No Child Raises Alarm

Ohanian Comment: I say kudos to a reporter who even acknowledges complications and ambiguities.

A change in accountability will make it easier for hundreds of Utah schools to meet academic- progress standards under the No Child Left Behind law, but minority advocates worry the result will actually be more children left behind.

Students still will have to take state tests in language arts and math. Schools still will report test scores to the public and the state and federal governments. But they no longer will be required to improve test scores for demographic

That means that as many as 41 schools in Granite School District won't have to improve, for example, their Pacific Islander students' test scores to meet the federal law's "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) standard. Up to 43 schools in Jordan District won't have to show improvement among English learners.

In fact, almost every school in the Salt Lake Valley has at least one group - typically minorities, English learners or students with disabilities - with fewer than 40 students. Most have two or three.

Instead, those children's test scores will factor into school districts' AYP status, not schools'.

"It's bastardizing No Child Left Behind," said Michael Clara, a longtime community activist in Salt Lake City. "If you change the group size, then you're not held accountable for students who need help the most."

Clara says the higher group sizes could mean lower scores for at-risk students.

"When we held [schools] accountable under AYP and schools' [reputations] depended on all students' test scores, they bore down and educated every child."

State officials say the change won't affect how school leaders identify and meet students' needs.

"I don't think that just because we've changed our [subgroup] size, you're going to see a lack of attention at our schools," said Christine Kearl, an associate superintendent at the state office. "District superintendents and principals look at lots of information when evaluating schools' needs, and AYP is just one thing they look at."

Clara doesn't buy that explanation. "Then why weren't they doing it before No Child Left Behind?" he asked.

Federal officials don't appear worried about the impact.

"We look at the data to determine what the effect is on schools, and we look to the states' rationale as to why they feel it's important," said Kerri Briggs, a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Education.

The 2001 No Child Left Behind law specifically targets groups - such as black, Latino, low-income and special-education students - whose academic performance historically has lagged that of middle-class white and Asian students.

Because many Utah schools are largely Anglo, the state has used a complicated formula designed to hold schools accountable for the progress of various demographic groups regardless of their size. The state's 2003 compliance plan even noted the importance of counting small groups in a state as homogenous as Utah.

"Many schools would not be accountable for subgroups if a [group] size greater than 10 were used," the plan said.

Despite that acknowledgment, Utah is increasing that group size to 40.

The implications are potentially significant because more Utah schools now may dodge possible penalties for failing to make AYP.

Title I schools, which receive special federal funding for low-income students, are penalized if they do not make adequate progress for two or more consecutive years.

They are designated as needing improvement and face sanctions such as allowing their students to attend other schools, paying for students' tutoring and even replacing entire teaching staffs.

State school officials say they want the change because larger subgroups are more statistically reliable and in line with other states.

"When you're doing such a small size as 10, one individual can really skew results," Kearl said. "So it's an issue of fairness to schools and students."

While it's true that small groups are statistically unreliable, Utah already uses a mathematical safety net called a confidence interval so that a few students cannot skew an entire group's performance and land the school on "warning status." The smaller the group, the more leeway a confidence interval provides.

Under the state's 2004 AYP standards, 65 percent of students in each demographic group had to pass the language-arts test. With a confidence interval, a group of 10 students would make AYP if three students passed the test. In other words, a 30 percent pass rate is considered the same as a 65 percent pass rate.

All told, 13 schools in Davis, Granite, Jordan and Salt Lake City districts that fell short of AYP in 2004 would have made it under the larger subgroup formula.

Increasing the subgroup size isn't necessarily a bad thing unless the state keeps the confidence interval, too, said Fredreka Schouten, a senior associate at the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group.

"That could obscure what is happening to some groups of students," she said. "There is flexibility under the law, but you want to make sure you're paying attention to the kids who need attention."

What the changes mean

More than 200 metro-area schools have small enough demographic groups that their test scores won't be counted when trying to meet federal achievement standards.

An upcoming change will hold schools accountable for demographic groups - by ethnicity, disability, English proficiency and socioeconomic level - with 40 or more students instead of 10, as has been the case the past two years.

* Davis: 46 of 73 schools have at least one demographic group with 10 to 39 students

* Granite: 79 of 86 schools

* Jordan: 68 of 79 schools

* Salt Lake City: 37 of 37 schools

— Ronnie Lynn
Salt Lake Tribune


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