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NCLB Outrages

Some sudents slip 'Behind' the shadows

In Memphis, the rich-poor, white-minority gap is more like a chasm. The neediest students still lag far behind their peers. The profiled student has "special needs," so he is put in front of a computer and told to work through the program provided with Plato. The reporter is critical of Shan's elementary education. She may be right. But it would be nice to hear from a few of his teachers. The problem might well be mainstreaming, but it's impossible to tell from the few details given here.

Final of Three parts

By Halimah Abdullah

In Shelby County schools, black students are almost five times as likely to be suspended as their white peers, and three times as likely in Memphis city schools.

Hispanic students in county schools have higher dropout rates than all other racial groups combined.

Only half of the South's black and Latino students even graduate high school.

The gap is historic, systemic and not easily erased.

Poverty. Cultural differences. Racism. Discipline issues. Lack of parental involvement. Lack of adequate funding. Unmotivated students. Ineffective teachers. All those factors and many more make up a growing problem that hampers the ability of districts and schools to offer a challenging education to the neediest students and see those students through to graduation.

No Child Left Behind promises to close the achievement gap by 2014.

Faced with increased pressure to make the mandate work, the U.S. Department of Education, states and districts are desperately trying to come up with the right combination of solutions to close the gap.

In some cases, states, districts and schools have come up with reading, math and attendance programs designed to reach more children than ever before. In other cases, they've come up with ways to get around counting students who make up the achievement gap -- undercutting the law's intent.

"These students continue to be victims of discrimination, maybe not the Jim Crow variety, but discrimination nonetheless", said Ross Wiener, policy director with Education Trust, a Washington based advocacy group that is examining the achievement gap.

In every case, educators and school officials are finding that trying to close the gap is like trying to fill the Grand Canyon one stone at a time.

As a result, despite NCLB's promises, many of the nation's minority, poor, limited English speaking and disabled children are still being left behind.

They are students like Shan Coleman.

'Mastery' and reality

One recent day, the Germantown High freshman sat at a computer, nonchalantly clicking through a Plato computer tutorial. Like Shan, most of the students in tutorial class are male and black.

They sit in a classroom with bare cinderblock walls. They roughhouse. They laugh. In this class, veteran special education teacher Ginger Hilbun-Cook must constantly fill out disciplinary reports.

That day, the lesson focused on understanding words based on context clues. Shan played a rap song on the computer as he answered the questions on the screen.

He bobbed his head to the beat while Plato quizzed him on things like what "monarch" means based on a sample sentence. Shan re-typed the sentence back into the system and hit the "Enter" button.

Plato congratulated him on the correct answer, stating he had achieved "mastery" and could move on to the next objective. Shan left that day not knowing what "monarch" means.

Shan is part of the achievement gap. He's in ninth grade but reads on a second-grade level. And he's falling further behind.

His special needs landed him in a Plato classroom, but mistakes made as far back as third grade determined the course of his education.

Shan suffers from a condition called microcephaly, which causes mental delays. Individualized learning plans that teachers wrote for Shan changed very little from year to year, continuing a cycle of low expectation. The lesson plans gave him credit for "excellent progress" toward subjects, without holding him accountable for ever learning the material.

While most of his middle school classmates spent the term preparing for the TCAP, one of the state's achievement tests, Shan got a crash course in basic geometry in his school's gym. In eighth grade, when many students began to learn algebra, Shan sat in special education classes with first- graders coloring ducks.

"You want to talk about a child that got left behind," his mother, Patty Coleman said. "Shan got left behind."

The complicated factors that affect children like Shan make education experts worry that making all students proficient by 2014 is an impossible goal.

Accountability gap

Educational experts said navigating the achievement gap is like walking through an academic labyrinth -- a journey with no foreseeable end in sight. Progress must be measured in small steps.

"We're getting a focus and a clarity of purpose around all students and subgroups of students," said Connie Smith, director of the Tennessee department of education's accountability office.

Reading intervention programs, hiring math coaches and summer and weekend math workshops are starting to make a dent in the achievement gap, and even the staunchest critics commend NCLB for calling attention to many of the gap's underlying issues.

The law shines a spotlight on students who, despite the passage of landmark desegregation ruling Brown v. Board of Education and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, have historically been in the shadows of the nation's classrooms.

NCLB holds schools, districts and states accountable for every child's progress.

The law requires states and districts to use data broken down by race, disability, poverty and English language ability to see where performance lags and where changes have to be made. After identifying which students are having problems, schools and teachers are supposed to step in to bring all students up to par.

States and districts are given broad leeway as to how they deal with their own achievement gaps, but there are consequences for failure to meet national standards. Schools and districts that don't make the grade appear on embarrassing "failing" schools lists, must give charter schools a chance to educate students and could face state takeover.

States like Tennessee point to gains on their own assessments as evidence that the achievement gap is narrowing.

In Memphis city schools, for example, math scores for African-American elementary and middle school students increased from 67 percent to 74 percent proficient -- just below the 79 percent federal target.

In Shelby County schools, reading scores for K-8 students with disabilities increased from 67 to 83 percent proficient.

The U.S. Department of Education and NCLB supporters cite moderate gains on the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, in reading and math scores for African-American and Hispanic 9- and 13-year-olds as more proof the law is making headway.

However, in Tennessee it's difficult to gauge whether gains on state tests are due to classroom efforts, changes in how the state measures student proficiency, or some combination of the two.

Between 2003 and 2005, the gap between Latino and white high school students in math actually grew in six states, including Kentucky and Missouri, according to a report released Thursday by Education Trust, an education think tank. The gap between African-American and white high school students in math increased or stayed the same in eight states.

The gap between high school students in poverty and their more affluent peers also widened in seven states, including Alabama.

Tennessee figures were unavailable for the study.

Experts also worry that efforts in the classrooms may be undermined by some states' requests to count only a portion of students with limited English proficiency or disabilities towards NCLB goals.

In 2004, Tennessee asked for leeway for districts and schools that fail to meet NCLB goals because of poor performance by students with disabilities. Now, Tennessee automatically considers 2 percent of those students to be proficient, even if they aren't.

And, in an effort to help more schools and districts meet NCLB goals, some states are changing how they count some of the students who make up the achievement gap. If a school's percentage of poor, minority, disabled or limited English speakers drops below a certain number, that group's test scores aren't counted at all against the school.

Texas, California and Florida's methods of counting students who make up the gap are raising eyebrows among educational experts.

"You have schools with sizeable minority and special education students who are not being counted," said Michael Petrilli, a former U.S. Department of Education official and vice president of National Programs and Policy for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education think tank in Washington. "It cuts at the heart of what NCLB was supposed to do."

Counting and recounting

While attention to close the achievement gap has helped shine a light on many of the nation's elementary and middle school students, it seems an increasing number of high school students are slipping into the shadows.

A study by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project found that in the South, while an estimated 71 percent of white students graduate, only half of their black and Latino counterparts do.

Different states use different formulas to determine graduation rates, and many of them don't publicly release that data broken down in terms of race, poverty, language ability and special needs. As a result, no one has a clear picture of which students are graduating -- and which are not.

There's also growing evidence that states are over-reporting their graduation rates. A study by Editorial Projects in Education, a Washington non-profit that researches education trends and policy, showed Tennessee's graduation rate is closer to 59 percent -- not the 76 percent the state reported.

On top of concerns about inflated graduation rates are worries that self-reported school data may mask the true dropout rate.

Much like the ambiguous system of tracking graduation numbers, it is unclear how many students drop out, and experts worry that thousands of students, mostly minority and poor, slip through the cracks.

At the heart of the criticism is districts' and states' use of formulas to make the dropout rate appear lower than it is.

Many states and districts use the "event dropout" rate -- the average number of students who drop out in a given year. Experts feel this method glosses over actual students lost and suggest using the "cohort dropout" rate, which tracks students from 9th grade through their 12th grade year.

In Tennessee, for example, the event rate showed that only 4.2 percent of the state's African-American students dropped out of high school. A cohort rate showed that 17.4 percent of those students dropped out.

Shelby County schools event rate showed fewer than 1 percent of Hispanic students dropped out, while the cohort number put that figure closer to 15.6 percent.

"In order to reduce a cohort all sorts of perverse things happen," said Linda McNeil, a Rice University professor and NCLB critic. "If you can double your school's score by losing half the kids then this is not an accountability system."

Tennessee was operating within the scope of the law. But in other parts of the country, districts desperate to meet state and federal benchmarks resorted to other means.

In Houston, a scandal over underreported and inaccurate high school dropout rates among mainly Hispanic students grabbed the attention of state officials and national media. Florida's counseling of high school students, many of them minority, to pursue GEDs so that they don't pull down their school's graduation rates drew public attention after a PBS report.

Such desperate measures are fueled by the high pressures that NCLB places on schools to get all children at the same place at the same time. Experts said urban districts face the brunt of that pressure because they often have more students with more needs, but less money to help them.

Students in poor districts are more likely to be taught by teachers with less training, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The nation spends roughly $900 less per pupil in those districts than in the wealthiest communities, an Education Trust report found.

"What many minority youngsters need is to have access to the same criteria and materials as rich kids," said Reg Weaver, National Education Association president. "People aren't going to do that, because it's going to cost money."

Beyond the numbers

At its core, NCLB is driven by numbers: deadlines, test scores, "proficiency" quotas and funding.

But education experts said districts must look beyond the numbers to develop specific strategies for the unique and varied needs of minority, poor and disabled students and those with limited English.

Those strategies should grow out of a cultural awareness that a poor child's dozing may not be because he's bored, but because he came to school hungry. Or that a child who is overage for her grade may be overly aggressive to mask her insecurities about a learning disability, and that counseling rather than suspension may be more effective.

Many states and districts just aren't there yet.

Area schools hope to help close the achievement gap by using their limited resources to target mainly poor students, focusing on math and literacy.

Poverty, while significant, is not the sole cause of the achievement gap.

Students in Memphis and around the nation who speak limited English may need bilingual teachers. Many special needs students may need a specially trained teacher in addition to their mainstream teachers and classes.

"I think it is very important that people do racial and cultural training," said Ruby Payne, an education expert whose model of teaching children in poverty has been adopted nationally and locally.

"Certain things happen because of race, certain things happen because of class . . . You have to have both sets of understanding."

— Halimah Abdullah
Commercial Appeal


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