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NCLB Outrages

Targets and fears

Ohanian Comment; Kudos to the reporter for showing that the public is becoming aware of the Catch-22 of Adequate Yearly Progress rules under NCLB. Too many articles make criticism sound just like public school whining.

By Trisha L. Howard

Meramec Valley School District's assistant superintendent of curriculum,
instruction and professional development made the rounds to three elementary
schools last week to deliver the good news: All three schools had helped more
of their students score proficient or advanced on state reading and math tests.

So the same assistant superintendent, Janet Hubbard, cringed when she saw the
newspaper report last week about her district falling short of Missouri's
target for yearly progress. The Franklin County district's five elementary
schools met the goals. The middle and high schools did not.

"It's heart-wrenching that out of all of these incredible achievements, people
are going to remember reading in the paper that Meramec Valley didn't meet the
state standards," Hubbard said. "But I'm in the schools celebrating."

Welcome to the world created by the federal No Child Left Behind law. It's a
system in which if one group of public school children fails to meet state
targets, the whole school - and, in turn, the entire district - fails to meet
the standard, known as "adequate yearly progress."

"There are so many ways to not make adequate yearly progress that it creates a
lot of opportunities to be seen as failing," said Bert Schulte, Missouri's
deputy commissioner of education. "I think that the federal law is putting
states and school districts in an awkward bind."

For example, the Troy, Mo., School District failed to make adequate yearly
progress this year because a single group of children - those in special
education at Troy Middle School - fell short of the target for communication
arts, according to testing data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and
Secondary Education.

That vexes Harvey Hegger, a retired engineer whose three grandchildren attend
Troy schools.

Hegger looked at the test scores and saw that his school posted higher
percentages of students in the top two scoring levels than some other districts
in the area. But some of those other districts met the state goals - and Troy

"I'm sure anybody who understands math and numbers would look at that and say,
'That doesn't make sense,'" said Hegger, a retired engineer. "It just doesn't
add up."

Educators and parents say they understand the push for accountability. But they
don't understand how schools and districts that stack up as excellent by other
measures can fail to reach the state targets for yearly progress.

Missouri residents are not alone in their concern. At least 15 states have
considered legislation to opt out of the federal law, and 21 states have
debated measures criticizing it, according to a study released last week by the
Civil Society Institute, a nonpartisan advocacy group in Massachusetts.

The federal law requires states to set annual targets for the percentage of
students who must score proficient or better on standardized tests. By 2014,
all students must be proficient in reading and math.

To meet Missouri's targets this year, 26.6 percent of students who took the MAP
tests had to score proficient or advanced in communication arts; 17.5 percent
of students had to score at those levels in math.

About 35 percent of the 2,035 schools statewide failed to meet those goals.

"I think they shouldn't look at it as either you pass everything, or you fail
everything," said Scott Sellers, an engineer whose triplet sons started first
grade last week at a Parkway elementary school. "That's too black and white. We
don't hold a student to that standard, so why would we hold a school to that

Proponents of the system put in place by the No Child Left Behind law say it's
set up the way it is because a school could appear to be meeting goals while
failing to help smaller groups of students, like those in special education or
those who are learning to speak English.

President George W. Bush has defended the system as "challenging the soft
bigotry of low expectations."

"If you do not have high standards and if you do not measure, people just
simply get shuffled through the system," Bush told the American Legislative
Exchange Council at a gathering in Texas this month.

Others, like Missouri's deputy education commissioner Schulte, say that the
public reads too much into test scores.

"I'd hate to characterize not making AYP (adequate yearly progress) as
failing," Schulte said. "I think that's the frustration that school districts
have, that schools are considered good or bad based on AYP."

There's frustration, and then there's fear of punishment. If a school fails to
meet state goals for two or more years in a row, it faces increasing sanctions,
from providing after-school tutoring to replacing a school's staff, management
and curriculum.

Schools can opt out of that system, though, by refusing to take federal money.

Ferguson-Florissant Superintendent Jeff Spiegel said he favors a proposal
suggested recently by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, in which the
country would move from requiring every student to be proficient to a system
that measures each student's performance year to year.

"It makes sense to a lot of educators to do that instead of comparing the
performance of different students," Spiegel said.

Marshall Cohen, director of the Lift for Life Academy, said his charter middle
school does just that, by testing each student at the beginning and end of the
school year to see whether the child has made progress under No Child Left
Behind, which applies to charter schools but not to private schools.

Testing students as a group doesn't tell educators whether they helped a
student who started several grade levels behind catch up to the rest of the
class, Cohen said.

"That's what we like to see, and we've been showing progress in those areas,"
Cohen said.

Expanded testing

As districts statewide looked at their test scores last week, state officials
already were talking about changes for next spring's tests.

First, the state will begin testing every pupil from third through eighth
grade, instead of testing just two of those grades in reading and two in math.
Testing every child every year will make it easier to track progress among
certain groups of students and to pinpoint whether schools are providing good
instruction across the board, said Education Commissioner D. Kent King.

Second, King said, the state will be revising its standards for proficiency to
more closely match the standards set by the National Assessment of Educational
Progress. King said that Missouri's standards already hew closely to most NAEP
standards but that the state's standard for eighth grade math is "significantly

Still, King said he worries about a single test measuring a district's worth.

"Missouri's accountability system looks at test scores but also attendance and
graduation rates," he said, referring to the state's school accreditation
system. "I have concerns about one test score that determines whether a school
is good or not. Frankly, I don't think one test score does that."

Jaimi Dowdell, Carolyn Bower and Mark Learman of the Post-Dispatch
contributed to this report.

Reporter Trisha L. Howard
E-mail: thoward@post-dispatch.com

— Trisha L. Howard
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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