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NCLB Outrages

Nebraska Offers Another NCLB Metaphor: Using an Outdoor Thermometer to Measure Body Temperature

December 2, 2003

When it comes to rating Nebraska's public schools, you might wonder whether federal and state officials are looking at the same thing.

To the Nebraska Department of Education, most of the state's schools are strong.

Four out of five Nebraska school districts passed muster with the state for their test methods and results. More than 95 percent of the state's students attend districts with passing marks.

But by the federal government's standards, few Nebraska schools do well enough.

Two out of three districts subject to the federal ratings fell short. And for every Nebraska student attending a district that met federal standards, seven other students are in districts that didn't.

That's one of the contradictions posed by Nebraska's release Monday of its latest State Report Card, a massive compilation of school ratings, test results and other statistics.

Students were tested in reading, math and writing, mainly in grades four, eight and 11. Private school students were not tested, and their schools were not rated.

The package is intended to give parents and others the information they need to hold schools accountable, and to measure the state's academic success.

The state ratings apply to nearly all of the 500-plus Nebraska districts. The federal ratings target the 159 largest, as well as more than 500 of the largest school buildings.

The federal ratings also carry consequences for schools that receive Title I funding for disadvantaged children. If students fail to make progress at such schools after several years, federal law will let students change schools or receive extra tutoring.

The radically different spin that the state and federal ratings apply to similar numbers might leave some people puzzled.

Consider:

Millard and Westside, two Omaha-area districts that are among the state's most respected, both failed to meet the federal definition of "adequate yearly progress." Yet each district graduates about 95 percent of its students and scores near the top in the state on tests ranging from Nebraska's writing assessment to the ACT college-entrance exam.

Just three of the state's 20 largest districts - Elkhorn, Blair and Beatrice - met the federal rating standard.

In contrast, 19 of those 20 large districts met the state's targets for performance and assessment quality. Only Ralston failed to hit the mark.

Even Omaha, with many disadvantaged students who do not score well, passed the state's test. Yet 45 percent of its students were not proficient on the state writing assessment, and nearly 40 percent of its high schoolers do not graduate.

Why are the state and federal ratings so different?

One reason is that the federal system, established by the No Child Left Behind legislation, sets a higher standard than the state. It's a standard that will get progressively tougher through the years, but some say it already may be unattainable for certain school districts with large numbers of low-income or non-English-speaking students.

While it's possible to pass the state standard with just 50 percent of a district's students being proficient in reading or math, the federal rating requires 58 percent to 66 percent proficiency on the same tests, depending on the grade or subject. In addition, 95 percent of students must take the test.

And districts can flunk the federal test if a single group of children, such as low-income or special education students, fails to meet those same percentages on every test.

That's what happened to Westside and Millard. Both met federal standards for the overall student body. Yet each missed on one or more subgroups of students.

"We had around 118 different cells in this matrix that the state and federal government have developed for different categories of students," said Bert Jackson, a Westside administrator. "You have about 118 cells of 'met' or 'not met.' There were maybe seven of those cells in which we had 'not met.' "

Those districts were among the exceptions, however. Most other districts that didn't make "adequate yearly progress" missed the federal standard for an entire grade level on at least one measure.

Papillion-La Vista, for example, had trouble with 11th-grade math and eighth-grade reading. It also fell short of the 95 percent participation requirement for several of the tests.

Jef Johnston, a Papillion-La Vista administrator, said the district sets its own standards for proficiency, higher than the state standards. That hurt the district's federal rating because fewer students were considered proficient.

"I would say that federal report is like using an outdoor thermometer to measure body temperature," he said. "It just isn't accurate."

— Paul Goodsell
Are schools faring well? It depends
World Herald
2003-12-02
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