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Schools await OK on changing standards

By Maria Sacchetti

The number of Massachusetts school systems that fail to meet federal standards on state tests could plunge by more than 75 percent if federal officials approve a state request to relax the rules.

The shift would lift a stigma for school districts, including affluent ones, that contend that they are unfairly slapped with the label if even a small group of students fails to meet federal benchmarks on standardized tests.

Under the current system, created by the state under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a school district could be labeled ``in need of improvement," for example, if only middle school special education pupils did not improve their scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test. Under the state's proposal, they would not get the label unless students across all the grades tested missed the mark.

State officials say they want to fix a system that makes Massachusetts look worse than it is: The Bay State tops the nation on test scores, but 64 percent of its school systems are now labeled in need of improvement. Federal law requires that all students reach grade level by 2014 and that each state set up its own testing and accountability systems.

``It unfairly communicates a negative impression," said Juliane Dow , associate commissioner for accountability and targeted assistance of the state Department of Education. ``The rule as we have it now makes it look like we have a lot of districts that aren't getting the job done, when in fact we're getting the job done very well."

Massachusetts is one of at least 25 states that have asked the federal government to change the rules so that fewer school districts are tagged as failing. A US Education Department spokesman said the state probably would get an answer within two weeks.

Under the current system, the state judges school districts on their overall test scores and the average scores of eight subgroups, over two years. The state tracks the scores for the entire school system and for each group: students who aren't fluent in English, along with black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, special education, and low-income students.

Under the proposed system, the state would still hold school systems accountable for all students, including subgroups, but only if their low scores were pervasive throughout the district. The state would divide each school system's test scores by grade spans -- elementary, middle, and high school. A district would fail to improve only if all spans did not meet the mark.

The plan could have a dramatic effect , according to a state estimate. Last year 189 school systems failed to meet the benchmarks on the test; a second year of failure would flag them as needing improvement. Under the state plan, only 44 school systems would have failed last year, a drop of more than 75 percent.

The plan, if approved, would start with this school year's scores. But the changes would not be retroactive , so the 155 districts, including high-scoring Lynnfield, that have been tagged as needing improvement, must improve for two years to get off the list.

School systems hailed the move, saying it would present a more accurate picture.

Lynnfield, with its high test scores, considers the needs improvement label an affront.

``It's ridiculous. We're one of the top districts in the state," said Superintendent Richard Palermo .

Systems will continue to be held accountable for student performance at individual schools, which face most of the sanctions, Dow said. Failing schools that receive federal Title I funds face a gradual set of consequences; they must allow students to transfer to other schools, pay for tutoring for students who want it, or face possible state intervention.

School districts on the list grapple mainly with an image problem. Parents compare test scores and other measures when deciding where to buy a house, and schools are often the biggest draw. School systems on the list also must set aside federal funds to train teachers, and pay private companies to tutor children.

But Rich Robison , executive director of the Boston-based Federation for Children with Special Needs , said he would look into the state's proposed changes to make sure they don't loosen the standards.

``In general, we've argued for strong accountability from the schools to make sure that every child has the best quality education they can have," he said.

— Maria Sacchetti
Boston Globe


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