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NCLB Outrages

Diversity has its downside in tests; Subgrouping hurts scores of top schools

Ohanian Comment: This article shows us the corporate-politico determination to undermine public confidence in their schools, daring parents to think their schools are ok.

As the Decatur mom who sent this item to me observes, "I cannot think of a single type of child that is not hurt by NCLB. It hurts everyone!"

By Patti Ghezzi

Parents seeking a high school with a track record of sending kids to top colleges and an environment resembling real-world diversity often end up at Lakeside.

The DeKalb County school's 1,092 SAT average exceeds the national average, and a national magazine recognized the school as second in the state for the percentage of kids in Advanced Placement courses. Click on the school's report card on the state Department of Education's Web site and a starburst appears with the proclamation: "Bronze Award: Highest percentage of students meeting and exceeding standards."

About half the school's students are white, and a quarter are African-American. About 13 percent are Hispanic, and 9 percent are Asian diversity you won't find in many of metro Atlanta's other highly regarded high schools.

But now Lakeside has a new distinction. The school did not meet state testing goals under the federal No Child Left Behind law. And it was the diversity Lakeside touts that kept it from doing so.

The law measures not only how well a school's students perform overall, but also the test scores of its subgroups Latinos, African-Americans, English language learners, students with disabilities and those from poor families. If one group fails to meet the state standard, the whole school takes the fall.

That gives schools with largely homogenous [sic] student populations an advantage. For example, Southside High School in Atlanta has an SAT average of 812, but the school met the state's testing goals. (Southside also got a state "gold award" for improving passing rates on state tests.) Almost all the school's students are African-American, and most are economically disadvantaged, so it had fewer subgroups to contend with. Southside passed.

Overall, Lakeside students easily met state standards. But Lakeside's Latino students and its students deemed "economically disadvantaged" because they participate in the federal free lunch program fell short in English language arts.

"It's just a fact we have to live with," said Wayne Chelf, Lakeside's principal. "I think we have a wonderful school. Are we perfect? No."

If Lakeside falls short again next year, it will get labeled "needs improvement" and have to offer students the option of transferring to another DeKalb County high school.

System fair or flawed?

Some say the labeling of Lakeside shows that No Child Left Behind is doing exactly as intended. The law is forcing schools to teach all its students and not just ride on the success of the kids with the most advantages.

"To be a top-tier school, Lakeside certainly needs to serve every child," said Pam Mason-Norsworthy, who has children at Lakeside and its feeder school, Henderson Middle, which also didn't meet the No Child Left Behind standard, known as adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

But Lakeside parent Larry Foster called the school's failure to make adequate yearly progress "a bizarre development that shows just how totally inappropriate and unrealistic this rigid, nationally imposed system of evaluating school success and failure is."

No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, signed by President Bush with bipartisan support. Lawmakers wanted to pressure schools into bringing test scores of poor and minority children up to the level of their affluent white peers. The law requires states to test all kids and publish passing rates within various groups as well as the schoolwide average. States gradually will raise the passing rates required to avoid the dreaded "needs improvement" label until 2015, when all students will be required to pass.

Unlikely schools snared

More parents are learning about the law as more schools accustomed to accolades get caught in the No Child Left Behind net.

Centennial High in north Fulton County SAT average of 1,104 and also a bronze award winner didn't make adequate yearly progress this year. Economically disadvantaged students didn't do well enough in English or math. Those students make up less than 15 percent of the school's population, but that's enough to fill a subgroup under the state's complex formula. And under the law, the school is only as successful as these kids, regardless of how many Centennial graduates go on to the Ivy League.

Sandra Nachtmann researched Centennial High's reputation before enrolling her daughter, who had attended a private school. Nachtmann said she was surprised the school didn't meet state standards. "That part bothers me," she said, noting that colleges might not view her daughter's transcript as favorably. But she is pleased with the school's diversity. "I do feel like it represents the real world being able to understand and not have such a narrow vision."

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and policy at the University of California, Berkeley, co-wrote a 2003 policy brief about what he calls the "diversity penalty." He said it's "sadly ironic" that metro Atlanta schools that have tried so hard to integrate and convince middle-class families not to eschew their schools for private academies or mostly white suburban schools now face the possibility of parents moving because they see only the "needs improvement" label.

"[No Child Left Behind] inadvertently works against the move toward integration," Fuller said.

The law comes up for reauthorization next year, and some changes are expected in response to complaints that the law isn't fair. For example, all subgroups' test scores could be averaged over three years, giving a more complete picture of how those students are doing, he said.

Some to stick it out

Some Lakeside parents managed to find a bright spot in their school not making adequate yearly progress. As a school that fell short, Lakeside won't have to accept transfer students from other failing schools. An onslaught of "AYP kids" led to crowding and chaos at some DeKalb schools last year.

In Gwinnett County, Norcross High with an SAT average of 1,046 has seen its Latino population swell to 25 percent. The school, which also draws from the affluent Peachtree Corners area, is more than a quarter African-American and more than a third white, earning it a reputation for diversity and strong academics. The school offers International Baccalaureate, a program based on international standards and challenging coursework.

But for the second year in a row, Norcross High missed under No Child Left Behind and is now deemed "needs improvement." Latino students fell short in math and English language arts.

Large high schools like Norcross, which has more than 2,600 students, can offer a variety of courses. The highest-achieving kids take honors, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, and those who need help with English language take courses geared to language. So the kids that keep Norcross' SAT above the national average might never sit in a classroom with the kids who can't pass the state tests required under No Child Left Behind. Yet the whole school wears the "needs improvement" label.

Lee Ann Early isn't worried about her daughter, Charlotte, a rising junior at Norcross. "Charlotte is not sitting there in class with kids who are struggling with English," she said. "I feel bad for those kids. I hope they are getting the help they need."

Donna Scullin also sees no reason to transfer her two sons out of Norcross High, even if one of the county's less diverse and higher performing schools were an option.

"The world is diverse; that is how life is now," said Scullin, whose kids first attended Simpson Elementary. Simpson is 80 percent white, draws from the affluent neighborhoods of Peachtree Corners and has test scores that are among the highest in the state.

"[Norcross High] is giving my children a strong, well-rounded education," Scullin said. "The bottom line for me is my children are happy; they are excelling and doing well in school."

Staff writers Kristina Torres, Mary MacDonald and Laura Diamond contributed to this article.

— Patti Ghezzi
Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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