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NCLB Outrages

NCLB Scorekeeping Gets Uglier

Ohanian Comment: So now they are identifying the one student who "caused" school to end up on the NCLB hit list. Next will kids have name tags?

One special education student missing a math test.

That's all it took to keep Renfroe Middle School in Decatur from meeting the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Renfroe is now labeled a "Needs Improvement" school and must offer parents the choice of sending their child to a better-performing public school or receiving extra tutoring.

"What a shame," said John Knapp, a Renfroe parent and PTA president. "I cannot imagine anyone transferring their child from Renfroe."

The federal reform law requires schools to test 95 percent of their students. Each school also must be divided into subgroups by race, wealth and other indicators, and schools must test 95 percent of the students in each of those groups.

Renfroe was one of many schools in Georgia that learned over the last two days that they were slapped with the Needs Improvement label -- not because they didn't perform well on state tests, but because too few students took the tests.

There were 298 Title I schools in Georgia that failed to meet their goals because fewer than 95 percent of their kids took the test, according to state education officials, who released the list of Needs Improvement schools Tuesday night. Title I schools receive federal money to help educate the state's poorest children.

The state does not have a list of schools that missed goals based solely on the participation rate. But for many schools in metro Atlanta, that was their only stumbling block.

At Renfroe, 42 of the school's 45 special education students took the math curriculum exam. That's 93 percent. If one more student had taken the math exam, it would have been 96 percent and Renfroe would have made its goals.

"That just shows how ludicrous all this is," said Sherri Breunig, a Decatur school system spokeswoman.

It may seem coldblooded, but proponents of No Child Left Behind believe in the 95 percent requirement. It prevents schools from hiding their underachieving students by keeping them home on test day, said Ross Wiener, policy director for Education Trust, a Washington-based think tank that supports No Child Left Behind.

"There have been instances where schools have artificially inflated their performance by discouraging certain kids from showing up on test day," Wiener said. "It's an effort to sort of close that loophole."

Under the federal law, states have to set testing goals and then produce a list of schools that did not make the grade. Schools are judged on their overall scores, as well as the scores of subgroups of children. Schools that don't meet the testing goals for two years must allow children to transfer out. After three years, the school must offer free tutoring. In Georgia, 60 percent of the elementary and middle school students tested must pass the state's reading and language arts curriculum test, and half must pass the mathematics exam. The pass rates are higher for high school students.

But before the state even looks at the test scores, it looks at the participation rate. If 95 percent of students in all subgroups weren't tested, it doesn't matter how high the test scores are.

Kathy Cox, Georgia's superintendent of schools, said the participation requirement was needed to make sure each kid was counted.

"If we're going to really take seriously this charge to educate all students, we have to get them to school, and we have to get them to school on test day," Cox said. "It's a hard threshold. It's going to wake everybody up."

"I don't think it will happen again next year."

But this year, some of these schools must scramble to offer parents the option of transferring their children or signing up for free tutoring.

At Simonton Elementary School, principal Carolyn Ford chose to focus on the positive. Ford was thrilled that her students met all the testing goals. But the school fell one student short of meeting its participation requirement -- a fact the school system plans to appeal. The system will try to prove that it had enough students taking the tests. It's possible, state officials said. There were some cases where test scores could not be matched with specific students' records. For the moment, Simonton must offer transfers and tutoring to its school families.

"We do have to live with the guidelines we are given. It is disappointing," she said. But she added, "We are so excited in some of the areas that we have shown improvement."

Cherokee County has four schools that are on the Needs Improvement list. But three of them -- Woodstock, Tippens and Canton elementary schools -- are on the list solely because of participation rate.

Cherokee Superintendent Frank Petruzielo said that's not fair.

"Teachers and principals and superintendents and school boards can do a lot to encourage attendance," Petruzielo said, "but the primary people responsible for getting kids to school to take the test is parents, and parents aren't getting graded."

Perhaps more damaging than having to offer transfers or tutoring is being labeled a Needs Improvement school.

"Our test scores in all areas for all grades were way over the thresholds the state had set," said Mike Vernor, principal of Woodstock Elementary, which fell two students shy of its participation requirement among economically disadvantaged students. "My students, parents and staff don't deserve that label. It's just asinine."

— Dana Tofig
'Listed' schools: Some see stigma in numbers game
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
August 7, 2003


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