Testing Law Baffles Parents
by Laura Diamond
Faye Andresen tries to keep up with her children's education.
She monitors homework, attends parent-teacher conferences and talks with other parents about what's going on in DeKalb County's public schools.
But she can't understand the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Andresen has reviewed the rules on the Georgia Department of Education's Web site. She has read newspaper articles about the law. And in the next couple of weeks when her son and daughter return to Druid Hills High School, she expects teachers and administrators again will try to explain the law.
It's no help.
"Just when I think I get it, it changes again," Andresen said. "It seems like the one thing you can be sure of with this crazy law is that it will keep changing."
Like parents around the metro area, whose children will return to class for the 2005-2006 school year over the next two weeks, Andresen expects more changes — and more confusion — in the coming year.
Since President Bush signed the testing law in 2002, the U.S. Department of Education has modified the rules nearly every year. Three main changes are expected over the next few years regarding special education, science, and measuring how much individual students learned in a year. Bigger changes are expected when the law comes up for reauthorization in 2007.
The continual tweaking is supposed to improve the law, experts say.
"When the law was first administered, it was administered too rigidly," said Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based group tracking how the law is implemented. "Now the U.S. Department of Education is trying to correct previous mistakes. That is a good thing, but it makes it hard to understand the effects of this law over time."
The law requires states to test students in reading/language arts and math in grades three through eight and once in high school. By 2014, every student must pass each test, a goal some say is unrealistic. Until then, test scores must steadily improve for all children and each subgroup of students, including minorities, low-income students, children with disabilities and those who speak English as a second language.
Alternative tests debated
Schools often struggle with low scores from special education students.
The federal government already allows up to 1 percent of students, those with severe cognitive disabilities, often the result of traumatic brain injury, to take an alternative test. Starting this school year, an additional 2 percent of students will be able to take a modified test. This likely will be for students with moderate disabilities, but the federal government won't release guidelines until fall, said Melissa Fincher, assistant director of testing for the state education department.
Some parents oppose rules that establish separate standards for students with disabilities.
"If we are truly going to leave no children behind there is no place for alternative assessments," said Chris Vance, a special education attorney based in DeKalb County and the mother of a son with disabilities.
Sue Snow, the new principal at Rockdale County High School, said she would prefer an approach that looked at specific disabilities.
Snow, the former principal of Conyers Middle School, successfully improved special education test scores by placing the children in traditional classrooms. The students received extra help from special education teachers who modified the lessons so the children would understand.
"The main focus must be on getting more students to pass the test," Snow said. "All you need to know about the other stuff is the rules will change every year, so as long as your children are learning, you should be OK."
'Growth model' proposed
A more revolutionary change being discussed could affect a wider number of students. That is the so-called "growth model." The federal law would still require schools to have a specific percentage of students pass state exams each year. But a growth model would measure how well schools are teaching based on the improvement of individual students from one year to the next.
For example, Georgia could look at how a fifth-grader performed on the state math test and see how much the child improved from the fourth-grade exam.
That kind of data gives schools credit for increasing student achievement, even if test scores are low, said Jim Mahoney, executive director of Battelle for Kids, a nonprofit group helping more than 100 Ohio school districts implement growth models. For example, a student may enter sixth-grade three years behind in math. A teacher could improve that student by two grade levels, but the student would likely still fail a sixth-grade math test.
While the concept might make sense, the CEP's Jennings said it could be difficult to implement because educators have to agree on how to measure growth and states must be able to track students who switch schools.
Jennings said the concept also may not match the law's intentions, which requires all students to be proficient by 2014.
Dana Tofig, spokesman for the Georgia education department, said it is too soon to commit to the idea.
"This is not something we would never think of doing, but it is not on our immediate radar," he said.
Plans to introduce a new science test are more definite.
By the 2007-08 school year, all schools nationwide must administer a science test once within three grade spans: three through five; six through nine; and 10 through 12. Scores won't be used to determine whether schools are meeting federal standards. But states will be required to release the results so parents have another tool to measure their child's school.
Georgia students already take a state science test, but some teachers said including the subject in the law helps.
Annette Higgins, a math and science teacher at the Fulton Science Academy Middle School, said she is tired of schools neglecting science to focus on reading and math.
"Maybe now science will stop being one of the stepchildren in school," she said. "Now schools will be forced to put more emphasis on science."
But the thought of more tests rattled Andresen, the DeKalb County mother.
"I've had enough tests already," Andresen said. "Why can't they just find a way to show me how well my school is really doing and how well it is really treating its students? Is that really so much to expect?"
Atlanta Journal Constitution
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