We're not failing,' principal says
by Chris Parker
BENNINGTON — Principal Sue Maguire guarantees it, no ifs, ands or buts: This spring, Mount Anthony Union High School will make adequate yearly progress.
But that won't necessarily be because of the school's most recent standardized test scores or because student performance has improved overall since 2000.
Instead, all indications are that the decision about whether the high school makes AYP will be based on its graduation rate of 82 percent, better than the state's goal of 75 percent.
That's the graduation rate, not test scores. And, for Maguire, it points out just how arbitrary and absurd the No Child Left Behind Act is.
Maguire readily acknowledges that for five out of the last six years, not every student group tested at Mount Anthony met the progress standards set by the No Child law. But she said that if schools are going to be judged, they shouldn't be assessed based on tests that are flawed measures of performance.
High schools with more than 80 learning disabled students - and Mount Anthony is one - are judged by different standards than other schools. And those standards are often highly arbitrary, according to Maguire.
By definition, disabled students start at two deviations below the norm, so it is nearly impossible to ensure the group makes AYP, the principal said.
"I think accountability is very important but let's at least make it a level playing field," said Maguire. "We have to demand this law is fair and equitable."
This week, the Vermont Department of Education released information about how more than 300 state schools fared on examinations administered last spring.
AYP decisions for Mount Anthony and all other grade 9-12 high schools were based on results from the New Standards Reference Exam and on the graduation rate. But due to an ongoing transition from spring testing to fall testing, AYP decisions for all other schools were based on only graduation or attendance rates and not test scores.
Maguire said this is simply unfair and one of the flaws of No Child Left Behind. While she said she wasn't about to play the "blame game," Maguire said her school is being cast as failing when it clearly is not.
"We have to start sticking up for what's right," she said. "I take exception to the fact our school is failing. Our school isn't failing. It's an insult to our students, teachers and community."
The U.S. Department of Education required the state to come up with AYP determinations, even though not all students were tested last spring. According to Gail Taylor, director of standards and assessment for Vermont, the state had to find something to assess schools on, and picked graduation and attendance rates as the measure.
Taylor said the state hasn't made a final decision about whether Mount Anthony's AYP determination next spring will be based solely on its graduation rate, but the likelihood is good. Taylor said state education leaders plan to speak to Washington about making changes to No Child Left Behind's accountability measures. The state's success will depend upon how federal officials balance Vermont's proposals with the law's goal of closing the achievement gap between proficient students and those missing the bar.
"This is an area that's going to result in some real conversations about what goes on with testing," she said. "We'll see how the U.S. Department of Education reacts."
A U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman, Jo Ann Webb, said states have some flexibility in determining how students are assessed when AYP determinations are made. But the parameters of NCLB are fairly specific for a reason, she said.
The law is up for reauthorization in 2007. Maguire, in her second year at the high school, said she would start lobbying now for changes in the testing system. She called on others to contact their legislators about calling for an assessment system that's more fair. Maguire envisioned a "continuous improvement" model, in which schools are judged by what kind of gains are made year to year, as opposed to aiming for an arbitrary and out-of-reach goal.
For all the flaws of NCLB, Maguire said the law has helped make the school, its administrators and teachers more accountable.
But the inequities imbedded within the law and school reform in general, she said, send the wrong message. Furthermore, she said, it may not be long before all schools are tagged as not making adequate yearly progress because federal authorities keep raising the bar.
Maguire's main concern, she said, is that the high school is tagged as a failure and rumors spread that state officials are going to sweep in and shut it down. In fact, the state is loathe to even contemplate taking the reins, because it is at a loss as to how to satisfy the law's unreasonable provisions, she said.
"I'm not worried about that," Maguire said of a takeover. " I am worried about the perception becoming a reality. ... The high school is the flagship school (for Bennington) and it's not a failing school. It's a fine school."
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES