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State kids being 'left behind' More schools slip by federal standards

by Nanette Asimov

California is leaving a lot of children behind, according to the federal government.

The results from the federal No Child Left Behind program show that 44 percent of California schools are failing to reach achievement goals, compared with 34 percent last year.

The higher failure rate had been expected, as this was the first time since 2002, when the program began, that achievement targets were made harder to meet.

Many of the schools that missed the targets could be penalized with being closed or taken over by an outside agency if their failure persists.

The grim assessment is in stark contrast to the good test-score news of two weeks ago, when students in every ethnic and income group improved significantly on the rigorous California Standards Test, posting their highest scores in five years.

California compiles those test scores into its own school ranking system called the Academic Performance Index, which has emerged as a competitor to the No Child Left Behind system, producing tension between state and federal education officials over how well the schools are doing -- and causing confusion for parents.

In the Bay Area, 555 -- or 39 percent -- of the 1,424 schools failed to meet the federal No Child Left Behind targets.

Districts also must meet the federal targets, and four out of 10 Bay Area districts failed to do so. San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and Novato failed, though their state test scores rose this year.

In fact, Novato's scores are among the highest in the state -- yet under the No Child Left Behind criteria, the district has failed.


Because Novato did not meet the requirement that 23 percent of its English-language learners score at grade level in English, missing by five students.

"I'm frustrated and very disappointed," said Novato schools Superintendent Jan La Torre-Derby. "It tells you that somehow this (federal) legislation needs to be restructured."

State schools chief Jack O'Connell, who announced the results Wednesday, agreed.

He was quick to blame the rising failure rate on the fact that it is now nearly twice as hard to meet the targets as it was last year:

The percentage of students required to score "proficient" in English and math rose from about 12 to about 23 percent, depending on students' grade levels.

And the required proficiency rates will continue to rise periodically until 2014, when every student is supposed to score "proficient" -- hence the name No Child Left Behind.

O'Connell likened the annual targets to an "arbitrary high-jump bar" that is raised periodically and leads to penalties for many schools and districts that don't make it -- even if they jumped higher than they did the year before.

"If you're not over that bar when it starts to go up again," success becomes even more elusive, he said. "So we need to do everything we can to help those schools get over the bar now."

O'Connell said he is renewing his long-shot quest to persuade the federal government to change its "high-jump" system to reward improvement, as California's own accountability system does.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Wednesday he has asked U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to meet with state educators on the matter.

Chad Colby, a spokesman for the U.S. Education Department, defended the federal approach -- even as it applies to such successful districts as Novato, where the five English learners caused the district to miss targets.

"It sounds like the district has just a little ways to go with English learners," Colby said, and compared Novato to sports star Shaquille O'Neal.

"He's a great basketball player, with great defense -- but he's a bad free-throw shooter," Colby said. "He's in need of improvement on free throws, so he's spending hours just on that. No Child Left Behind also highlights problems that need to be fixed."

Under No Child Left Behind, all schools, districts -- and the state -- receive up to 46 achievement targets that they must reach. If they just miss one, they've failed to make what the federal government calls Adequate Yearly Progress, the cornerstone of No Child Left Behind.

One target, for example, is a high school's graduation rate. It may not decline from the previous year or drop below 82.8 percent. Another target is that at least 95 percent of students in a school or district must take the state proficiency exam. Yet another, the toughest of all, requires increasingly higher percentages of students to score "proficient" or above on California's difficult exam until the year 2014, when 100 percent are supposed to score proficient.

In addition, each ethnic group, as well as poor kids, students with disabilities and immigrant children who don't know the language, must meet the same rising requirements under the No Child Left Behind rules.

As a state, California achieved only 43 of its required 46 criteria, although every ethnic group -- from blacks to American Indians -- met the proficiency rate for success. Low-income kids met the proficiency rate. Students graduated in high enough numbers, and the required number of kids took the test.

But it failed because too few students with disabilities scored high enough on the English and math tests. And students new to the language were also unable to compete on the English test.

In the Bay Area, schools and districts generally did better than the state as a whole.

San Francisco did not.

Just two weeks ago, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman had danced a joyful jig as she announced that overall test scores rose and that black and Latino students also did well.

Now, too few students in those groups, as well as students with disabilities, scored high enough on the English and math tests. And too few Pacific Islanders scored high enough in English.

"I was shocked," said Ackerman. "If we didn't make it, then who did? It's just heartbreaking, because this is the first year that the test scores of African American students grew faster than those of all other groups -- and now this. Well, I've always said we have more work to do." Penalties kick in only after a school or district fails to meet the targets two years in a row. Then the underperformer enters a five-year improvement program run by the state.

If it still cannot meet federal targets for two years running, the school or district could be taken over by an outside entity, among other possibilities.

O'Connell will announce on Sept. 15 which schools and districts are subject to penalties.

To see how all schools

— Nanette Asimov
San Francisco Chronicle


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