How a Good School Can Fail on Paper
Ohanian Comment: Maybe Michael Winerip will bring down NCLB.
PINE LEVEL, N.C.
KIM WELLONS, principal of Micro-Pine Level Elementary School, knows it takes special patience to teach special education children. Before Ms. Wellons became the principal in this farm community, she was a special education teacher for 15 years. And she was inspired to do this work because two of her cousins, now middle-aged and both borderline retarded, never learned the skills in school they needed to live independently.
"They were hidden away in the basement of the school," Ms. Wellons said. To this day, those cousins live at home with their elderly mother.
At Ms. Wellons's school, special education classrooms are bright and inviting, their walls full of posters and learning tips.
Though it is costly, she keeps classes small. Elizabeth Lawhon, a teacher, and Kim Hicks, an aide, have just six children in their class. All six were thoroughly assessed; they do not have learning disabilities, they are slow learners, six borderline retarded fourth and fifth graders with I.Q.'s in the 60 to 70 range.
Each day they get several hours of reading and math help. For teacher and students alike, it is grinding work. "Now, let's try spelling a new word, `dip,' " Ms. Lawhon said. A fourth grader wrote, "bop." A fifth grader, who has the beginnings of a mustache, wrote "di--" but could not get "p."
They tried to write "lap" next. One got it, but the fifth grader with the mustache made a mistake, erased, made a mistake, erased, then got it. The fourth grader wrote, "dop." "Last year he didn't know any vowels," the principal whispered. "At least he's putting vowels in his words, whether they're right or not."
Because these five, plus a few more like them, could not pass a standardized test on their grade levels, Micro-Pine Level has been labeled a failing school under the federal No Child Left Behind law. For many who know special education, the law is surreal.
"No one wants these children to succeed more than I do, but you just can't expect a child with an I.Q. of 64 to be on grade level," Ms. Wellons said. "We can teach them a lot. We can teach them skills they need to support themselves. They just can't go as fast as other kids."
Lou Fabrizio, North Carolina's testing director, and Dane Linn, the education director of the National Governors Association, say the special education standards of the 2002 federal law, more than any other provision, have caused good schools to be labeled failing.
"It's hurting a lot of schools that are making progress," Mr. Linn said. For their part, federal officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they did not have enough data to draw conclusions and emphasized that the law's intent was to see whether students were performing at their grade levels, regardless of any disability.
By most measures, Micro-Pine Level is a fine school. Under the North Carolina system, the school was cited for making exceptional gains on state tests, earning every teacher a $1,500 state bonus. The county superintendent, Dr. Jim Causby, praises the staff's work with the school's poor children. The last two Johnston County teachers of the year, Karen Parker and Rose Hayes, both wives of local ministers, teach at the school.
Under the federal system, Micro-Pine Level made adequate progress as a school, with 86 percent of all students proficient in reading and math. But the 2002 federal law says that if just one school subgroup fails to make adequate progress — poor students, blacks, Spanish speakers — the school gets a failing rating. Micro-Pine made adequate progress in 15 categories, but missed in special education, and that is all it takes.
Ever wonder how No Child Left Behind's formulas can turn a real-life good school into a failing school on paper? Micro-Pine Level has 45 special education students — with handicaps varying from speech impediments to retardation. To make adequate progress under the federal formula for North Carolina, 74.6 percent of these 45 students — 34 — need to score as proficient in math.
Of those 45, 8 were immediately counted as failures. They were all borderline retarded children who took an alternative state assessment because they were several grades behind. While all 8 showed progress, the federal law counts them as failures because they could not pass the regular state test for their grades. That meant 34 of the remaining 37 special education students had to pass. Only 31 did. And those 3 failed special education students turned Micro-Pine Level, a school of 500, into a failure.
There is more formula magic. For a subgroup to be included in the federal assessment in North Carolina, it must have at least 40 students. So if Micro-Pine had 6 fewer special education students, 39, they would not constitute a subgroup, and the school would suddenly be a federal success. Even if all 39 failed!
In dark moments, Ms. Wellons has considered reducing her special education census to 39. "I could take off a few with mild speech impediments," she said. She could have the borderline retarded children take the regular state test. "We could teach them testing skills," she said. "Maybe they'd get lucky."
But she will not. "I couldn't," she said. The borderline children experience enough failure, she said, and do not need to be humiliated by a test far beyond their abilities. And she will continue to offer special education to any child she feels will benefit, even those with mild speech impediments.
What makes Ms. Wellons a valued principal has little to do with test scores. As is true of many of her students, Ms. Wellons lives on a farm. She knows her children and what they are up against.
"This is one of 14 living in the same house with grandmother," she said during a school tour. "This one had to sleep at the bus driver's house the night before the state tests because there was a drug raid going on at home."
If children act out, she drives them home for a talk with the parents. Ms. Wellons is known in the white, black and Mexican farmhouses and at every trailer park, from Country Store Road to Berry Acres to Beulah in the Pines.
"You have to have the heart for teaching," she said, "and if you don't, it doesn't pay enough."
Until the people in Washington figure a way to factor that into their formulas, educators like Ms. Wellons believe, No Child Left Behind is likely to remain, for many, a baffling law full of statistical hocus-pocus.
How a Good School Can Fail on Paper
New York Times
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES