New Federal Rules Flawed and Confusing to Parents
New federal school standards, which likely will cast at least some of Metro Detroit's top-performing schools as failing, are causing confusion and frustration well before the results are publicly released.
Middle and elementary schools in districts such as Birmingham, West Bloomfield, Plymouth, Southfield, Dearborn and Warren already have been told by the state they failed new requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Although the failing designation forces no significant changes unless it persists for three or more years, schools have filed hundreds of appeals saying the state miscalculated their results. The appeals have taken time to prepare, widened distrust of the state's oversight and delayed until January the release of the list of schools meeting national standards.
Even when the appeals are settled, however, experts say the tough new benchmarks probably will label many traditionally high-performing schools as failures. Some critics say that only confuses parents and draws the focus away from schools that need the most help.
"It's sort of heartbreaking," said Southfield spokesman Ken Siver, referring to the district's Stevenson Elementary, which failed because 94.8 percent instead of the required 95 percent of kids took required state tests. "The school deserves better. They have made the effort, and they are getting results."
This is the second year the state has released results on whether schools met the federal standards for adequate yearly progress, often called AYP, as a part of President Bush's 2002 No Child Left Behind legislation. High school results are expected next year.
If schools make the failing list for two or three years, those receiving federal aid start to come under sanctions, such as having to offer tutoring or transporting students to better-performing schools. After five consecutive years of failing, schools could be required to fire staff, reopen as charter schools or turn over operations to the state.
This year, schools must do better than having a high percentage of students passing state tests.
Schools now must ensure that 95 percent of students actually take the tests and that test scores improve for minorities, the poor, special education students and those who are learning English as a second language.
Because of the tougher standards, even schools with a traditionally high percentage of students passing state exams could be labeled as failing.
"We will see some of the best schools in Michigan on the list," said David Plank, co-director of Michigan State University's Education Policy Center, which provides nonpartisan analysis of education issues. "It's a guarantee."
He considers that a negative aspect of the federal standards.
"It doesn't send a clear message and doesn't target our attention at schools that need it the most," he said.
Supporters argue that most of the problems are growing pains for the education reforms and contend the law will ensure all children improve. The law's goal is to raise test scores each year to have all students proficient by 2014.
"If you are not lifting up all ... students, you shouldn't be considered exemplary," said Sandy Kress, a Texas attorney who helped construct the law as former senior education adviser to President Bush. "You have work to do."
The widespread belief that the state made numerous errors in implementing the measurements has compounded educators' criticism.
In Southfield, at least two typically high-performing elementaries were told that despite good scores on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, or MEAP tests, they are failing because too few students took the tests overall or in one or more of the student subgroups. Testing at Vandenberg and Stevenson elementaries found more than 90 percent of fourth-graders were proficient in math and reading. The state averages are 65 percent for math and 75 percent for reading.
In Plymouth, special education students at two middle schools didn't hit the target scores, so the schools didn't make the required progress.
Both districts are appealing the results, which they say are flawed, but are frustrated with myriad ways schools can fail to meet national standards.
Officials at the Oakland Intermediate School District say they've calculated at least 120 ways schools can fail to make the cut. For example, if a school has 30 special education students and 28 or fewer take the test, the school loses.
Lester Jones, whose granddaughter goes to Southfield Stevenson, was baffled to hear the school was told it failed national standards.
"It surprises me," said Jones, a Detroit resident. "This is an excellent school."
At Vandenberg, the state said not enough students in the special subgroups were tested to meet standards.
Vandenberg is a magnet school, open 11 months of the year, where almost half of the students are learning English as a second language. President Bush visited the school while touting the new legislation in May 2002, praising it as "a school that best demonstrates the philosophy of our 'No Child Left Behind' " plan.
The district is appealing the results for Vandenberg, Stevenson and five others.
"We looked at the data, and it jumped right out that it was wrong," Siver said.
Birmingham and Warren Consolidated each have three schools labeled failing, but officials are confident that appeals will change that designation.
"We have high-performing schools that easily made the scores," said Sandra Schwartz Spencer, Birmingham's assessment coordinator.
L'Anse Creuse and West Bloomfield are appealing one school each that the state called failing.
Ernie Bauer, a consultant with the Oakland Intermediate School District, said he thinks most of the appeals will lead to changes, but he expects some traditionally high-performing schools to fail because of the new standards.
"We will see some surprises in Oakland County," he said.
The state told Dearborn that some of its middle and elementary schools failed the federal standards. The district said it has spotted the state's mistakes and contested the results. Other errors may have led to passing marks for schools that actually did not meet federal standards, said Shereen Arraf, Dearborn's coordinator of Assessment, Program, Planning and Evaluation.
"The data was so wrong, so incorrect," said the district's spokesman David Mustonen.
There remains the chance that some of the results will hold up. In part because of its large Arab population, an estimated 38 percent of Dearborn's 17,600 students are learning English as a second language, a group of students that must hit the same target scores that the overall student population must reach.
"It has a tendency to skew our scores more than other districts," Mustonen said. "It's not an excuse for us. It's just another challenge we face."
New grading system
Kress said states such as Michigan are working to help parents distinguish continually low-performing schools from those that may have failed because they didn't have enough kids take the test or because one small group didn't measure up.
The state will release a new evaluation system called Education Yes!, which grades schools on their MEAP scores and other areas, such as parent involvement.
These letter grades will be issued at the same time as the listing of which schools met federal benchmarks, potentially creating even more confusion among parents. In some cases, a school could fail the federal standards and still get a grade as high as a B from the state. More than 1,200 schools have filed appeals with the state, challenging either their state-imposed grade or the label of failing that comes from not meeting federal standards.
If the state had trouble getting the figures right, it's a pretty good bet that many parents will have a hard time deciphering all the data as well, said L'Anse Creuse Assistant Superintendent Keith Wunderlich.
"I hope the public realizes what these numbers mean," he said. "But I suspect there will be a lot of confusion."
Reputations at stake
Debbie Malyn of Dearborn says tests are not an accurate reflection of school performance.
But she's afraid that parents or uninformed consumers will not know any better and be turned off by schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress mandated by No Child Left Behind.
"I don't think MEAPs are a fair way of judging how schools are doing," said Malyn, who has a has a fifth-grader at Dearborn's Snow Elementary and a seventh-grader at Stout Middle School. "It's horribly unfair to the districts, and it's unfair to kids."
Officials suggest that parents whose children go to schools that didn't meet national standards become more involved. They can attend meetings to address problems, volunteer to help in classrooms and encourage other parents to get involved.
Warren Consolidated schools has been informing parents on the new measurements for 18 months, but a majority care more about what's going on directly in their classroom, said Bob Freehan, the district's spokesman.
"The bottom line is when it comes out, it's going to be a one-day media event," Freehan said. "We agree we need assessment, but you have to come up with something that works."
Jim Sandy, executive director for the Michigan Business Leaders for Education Excellence, thinks the measurements will work and are important for parents to know.
"If schools are teaching students how to read and write and are teaching math, they have nothing to worry about," Sandy said.
At risk of failing
Examples of schools appealing rulings that they failed standards:
* Plymouth-Canton's East Middle School
Reason failed: Too few special ed students passed state tests.
Overall scores: 73.5 percent of seventh-graders passed reading and 69 percent of eighth-graders passed math, both 12 or more points above state averages.
Appeal: State included students in results it shouldn't have.
* Southfield's Stevenson Elementary School
Reason failed: Not enough students took state tests.
Overall scores: 96.6 percent of fourth-graders passed reading and 100 percent passed in math, 22 and 35 points, respectively, above average.
Appeal: Some students weren't counted.
What's required to pass
To avoid being designated as a failing school, schools must show adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act in all of these areas:
* A predetermined percentage of students must pass state tests in math and reading. Each year the percentages increase until 2014, when all students must be proficient.
* The same percentage of subgroups such as minorities, economically disadvantaged, disabled and special education students also must pass state tests.
* Ninety-five percent of students in a school, and in each of the smaller groups evaluated, must take the state Michigan Educational Assessment Program, or MEAP test.
* Student attendance (in middle and elementary schools) and graduation rates (for high schools) also are used.
If a school receiving federal money fails to meet the standards, sanctions can be imposed:
* After failing to meet standards for two consecutive years, officials must develop a two-year plan to turn around the school. Students must be offered the option of transferring to another public school in the district -- which may include a public charter school -- that meets the federal requirements.
* After three consecutive years, students from low-income families become eligible to receive services, such as tutoring or remedial classes.
* After four years, the district must take actions, such as replacing staff or fully implementing a new curriculum.
* After five years, the district must restructure the school. This may include reopening the school as a charter, replacing all or most of the school staff or turning over school operations either to the state or to a private company.
How to get involved
Parents can take steps to help their failing schools:
* Attend meetings called by the school district to address the problems.
* Volunteer at school.
* Encourage other parents to get involved.
* Learn about the school's special challenges.
Source: U.S. Department of Education
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