Arizona School Chief Asks Feds to Ease Academic Rules
State schools chief Tom Horne has sent a letter to Washington, D.C., asking for changes in the way Arizona schools are judged.
Without the changes, the U.S. Department of Education would label an estimated one-third, or 600, of Arizona schools as failing to meet federal academic standards by September.
Over the past few years, Horne and superintendents from other states have successfully negotiated changes to ease the federal rules so that fewer of their states' schools would fail. Horne calls the federal accountability rules too rigid to be fair.
"Part of my job is to do everything I can to protect Arizona schools from being unfairly labeled as underperforming," Horne said.
In the meantime, 2005 is a particularly critical year for Arizona; it's a year that could see the number of schools failing the federal standards double over last year, when 303 schools did not make what the feds call "Adequate Yearly Progress."
Federal law requires all Arizona students to pass Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards reading and writing test by 2014. Many states are required to make steady, year-to-year growth in the percentage of students passing their state's standardized test. But federal officials allowed Arizona to keep the required percentage of students passing AIMS steady for three years, then catch up with a steep increase, like a balloon payment on a mortgage.
Now it's time for Arizona to pay up. The first three years are over and that first big jump in the percentage of students who need to pass AIMS comes due this year. Depending on the grade level, schools must show an increase of 9 to 15 percentage points.
For example, to meet federal Adequate Yearly Progress standards in 2002, 2003 and 2004, a minimum of 44 percent of a school's third-graders had to pass the AIMS reading test; this year it's up to 53.3 percent. Consequences of failing are mild unless a school doesn't meet the passing mark for four or five consecutive years. Then federal education officials demand major changes, including replacing school leadership and staff.
So, Horne sent a letter late last month to Assistant Secretary of Education Raymond Simon asking to ease the rules. Here are some of the changes he wants:
• Reduce the required elementary attendance rate to 90 percent from 94 percent.
• There are many ways a school can fail federal standards. One year a school could fail because its fifth-grade AIMS test scores didn't meet minimum requirements. Even if those fifth-grade scores vastly improve the next year, the same school could fail again the next year if it doesn't meet the required federal attendance rate. Horne said a school should get penalized only if it fails to meet the identical objective year after year, such as failing to meet fifth-grade passing rates year after year, demonstrating "a chronic deficiency."
• If a school has fewer than 30 students at a grade level or in a designated smaller group, such as students in an ethnic or racial minority or students living in poverty, the feds don't count that grade or group's scores. It also doesn't count the grade or group's attendance rate or their graduation or test participation rate. Horne wants to increase that number to fewer than 60, allowing the state to discount more grades and groups, and giving schools a better chance to pass federal standards.
• Horne had one more request, not for this year but for 2006. Horne asked the feds to reduce the required 71 percent high school graduation rate because Arizona expects a dip in graduation rates for the Class of 2006. It is the first class whose members must pass the high school AIMS test to get a diploma, a demand made by state law, not a federal requirement.
Not everyone is cheering the prospective changes. Maricopa County Schools Superintendent Sandra Dowling understands the practical and political forces that require Horne to limit the number of schools failing the federal standards. But changing the system every year makes it difficult for districts to meet moving targets, Dowling said. She is especially concerned about discounting scores of many needy students and not demanding 94 percent attendance.
"If the kids are not there, they can't learn," she said. "If they're not counted, they'll be written off by the system. You are talking about a significant number of students who are not going to be tracked through the AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) process."
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