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Many Districts Put on "Needs Improvement" List Because of Student Absenteeism on Test Day

Last spring, four students in the Randolph School District were no-shows on the day of the state math test.

One was in Korea visiting a father stationed at a military base. Two were getting ready to move outside the country. The last probably was at home sick.

In the course of a 180-day school year it's not unusual for students to miss days even test days but the absence of those four students had greater repercussions than most.

Their absence caused Randolph, which previously earned the state's highest academic accolades, to be tagged as "needing improvement" because teachers didn't test enough students on exam day.

"To have the implication that you aren't satisfactory, I think is unfortunate," said Barbara Maddox, Randolph's superintendent. "We're not sending our kids off and not testing them. They're legitimate reasons."

A thousand of Texas' public schools and 98 of its districts were identified as not meeting new federal education standards last week, the majority of them solely because not enough students showed up on test day.

Locally, 89 percent of the 70 campuses labeled "needs improvement" and all of the districts Fort Sam Houston, Southside and Randolph received that status on test participation alone, according to data from the Texas Education Agency.

High schools, where attendance is typically lower than in elementary or middle schools, were especially hard hit by the standard.

In Bexar County and the surrounding areas, 56 percent of the campuses that didn't meet the federal requirements were high schools all but two because of too-low participation.

"We had 19 kids that were sick that day," said Linda Foster, principal of Alamo Heights High School, which was cited as needing improvement for not testing enough students in math. "You know that time of year when the test is given? It's the flu time of year."

The federally mandated formula for evaluating schools under President Bush's No Child Left Behind law gives test participation, test performance, graduation rates and attendance equal weight, meaning schools or districts can be tagged for failing just one of those measures.

To meet the standard for participation, schools and districts must test 95 percent of all students and of each student group: African American, Hispanic, Anglo, poor, special education and English language learners.

Sandy Kress, a longtime reformer of Texas education and a former education adviser to the president, remembers wondering whether schools would be able to meet such a high participation rate when the bill was being crafted. But, he believes it's an integral part of the law.

"How can we say 'no child left behind' if we don't know where each child is?" he asked. "We ought not be so easy about not (testing) a lot of kids."

Ensuring nearly all students are taking the test keeps people honest, experts said.

"The 95 percent is there to prevent people from playing games with the system," said John Stevens, executive director of the Texas Business and Education Coalition, which has pushed for tougher standards, particularly in high schools. "Ninety-five percent though, especially if you look at the high schools, would on any given day be tremendous attendance."

Because the state administers most subject tests on one day, campuses that had more than 5 percent of students sick or out of school for any other reason couldn't meet the standard.

Small schools are especially vulnerable. Five percent for them can be less than a handful of students.

"You know, we have no control over whether a kid comes to school that day," said John Folks, superintendent of the Northside School District where nine schools were posted as "needs improvement" all but three for testing too few students.

"I think we're getting penalized by the standard that's being set," Folks said. "Other states provide a window for testing, so if a kid isn't there one day, that kid can test another day.

"Texas doesn't do that."

Richard Middleton, superintendent of the North East School District where eight schools failed to make the federal cut all because of participation rates hopes the state will add makeup test days in the future so campuses have a better chance of meeting the standard.

"Attendance of 92, 93, 94 percent is very common in high school," Middleton said. "I understand the intent of the rules. The rules could be improved, though."

High schools also may have had more difficulty meeting the 95 percent target because the formula considers only 10th-grade data. That means campuses are judged on the performance of a much smaller group of students then in elementary or middle schools where several grades are evaluated.

Counting only 10th grade poses another dilemma for high schools: How to get students, who would suffer no personal consequences for missing the test, to care about it.

— Bridget Gutierrez
Most fault absences for failure
San Antionio Express-News


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