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NCLB Outrages

More schools falling short

Ohanian Comment: Surprise. Surprise. The number of schools in Massachusetts receiving the worst NCLB designated has nearly doubled since last year. Note who's pushing for severe action: business leaders and and their politico handmaidens. Same old story: blame teachers for not righting the wrongs of poverty.

By James Vaznis

More of the state's public schools are failing to measure up under federal standards, and the number of schools receiving the worst designation has nearly doubled since last year, according to a preliminary report released yesterday.

Overall, 617, or 37 percent of the state's public schools, including charters, have failed to meet federal standards for at least two years, up from 420 last year.

The state Department of Education gave 57 schools the most severe designation, up from 30 last year. The schools failed to meet goals for state test scores for five years or more. Under the federal law, Massachusetts could decide to remove the principal and staff and directly oversee the schools.

The rising number of the worst-performing schools presents a challenge for the Bay State, where officials have been debating for years how to handle failing schools. To date, state education officials have partnered with districts to improve schools rather than take them over, while some politicians and business leaders have been pushing for more severe measures.

Under the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Act, every student in each state must reach proficiency in English and math by the year 2014, showing solid command of grade-level material. Each state can use its own testing system to decide what proficiency is. In Massachusetts, schools are judged on overall student performance on the MCAS and other measures and the results of students from eight subgroups, including race and ethnicity. The focus is on evaluating how much schools are improving as they aim to get 100 percent of their students to reach proficiency.

``We knew this was going to happen," David P. Driscoll, state education commissioner, said of the growing number of schools falling short of the federal requirements. ``Standards rise every year. We anticipate more and more schools will be identified."

However, 45 schools that had been identified for improvement last year demonstrated enough progress that they are now in compliance with federal standards.

Under the law, states must judge both schools and districts, which can receive one of three designations if they fail to meet federal standards. The least severe rating is needs improvement; the middle rating is corrective action, and the worst is known as restructuring, because by that point, the state has the power to take over a school or school system. Yesterday, Massachusetts released the preliminary ratings for nearly all of the 1,685 public schools; the state is still analyzing data on roughly 100 schools. It will release data on school systems and more complete reports on individual schools in upcoming weeks.

The schools identified as the worst performing are primarily in Boston, Fall River, Holyoke, New Bedford, Springfield, and Worcester. In Boston, the number of worst performing schools rose to 13 from seven. The additional schools in that category included two middle schools where too many students continued to fail state math exams. At both schools, more than half of the sixth- and eighth-graders were failing state math tests, compared with roughly a quarter statewide.

Overall, about 90 of the district's 145 schools, including the 13 worst performing schools , are on the federal list of schools requiring improvement, according to the district. Jonathan Palumbo, spokesman for the Boston schools, said the district has tried a variety of strategies to improve the lowest-performing schools, including a change in principals or extending the school day.

``It's a very daunting task," Palumbo said. ``Each year new schools are added to the list."

Educational advocacy groups say the additional schools requiring attention are threatening to overwhelm the state Education Department, which they say lacks the staffing and financial resources to assist schools with a turnaround. The department has only $5 million for intervention strategies and Mass Insight Education estimates it needs $25 million.

``There is no question we are not seeing dramatic efforts at local levels, and we won't unless the state provides the tools," said William Guenther, president of Mass Insight.

Driscoll said the state hasn't taken advantage of the federal law's allowance for state takeovers. But last year, the state worked with underperforming schools in Holyoke and Fall River, and hired a private consulting firm to help schools turn around.

A glimmer of hope for turnarounds surfaced this year in Springfield, where the Washington Elementary School shed its designation for restructuring because it had improved student performance. Two years ago, the superintendent appointed a new principal, Kathleen G. Sullivan, who instituted a new reading program and replaced nearly all the teaching staff.

Overall, on the federal list, about 56 percent of the schools are in urban areas, while the rest are in suburban or rural areas. About half the schools missed the mark for overall student performance. The other half of schools faltered because of the performance of certain subgroups; most commonly, schools did not meet federal standards because of the results of students with learning disabilities or from low-income households .

Driscoll preferred yesterday to focus on the 45 schools that have improved enough to comply with federal standards. Schools can get off the federal list by showing two years of improvement.

``That shows the accountability system works," he said.

— James Vaznis


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