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Educators Reject "Failure" Labeling

There's a new saying in Utah public schools: Don't judge the school by its test scores.

"It's like taking a child and saying your score on the SAT [a standardized test] is who you are [and] what you're about," said Vicki
Smith, principal of Adams Elementary.

She doesn't believe that. So instead of feeling deflated by reports released Monday that labeled her north Layton school as failing, Smith and her faculty celebrated by toasting their successes with sparkling
grape juice.

Many principals and teachers at so-called failing schools highlighted the positive and offered explanations for the label as schools announced whether they met academic goals under the federal No Child Left Behind law. They also criticized the program, which requires all students to make passing grades on standardized tests by 2014, calling it unfair and unrealistic.

Adams Elementary failed because its disabled students didn't pass at high enough rates in math and language arts. Smith isn't surprised: The students were tested on material they cannot or have not learned. The school passed in all other areas. But Smith fears parents and the rest of the public won't notice the good news.

"It's unfair to judge a school, especially to put it out before the public," she said. "They live in soundbites. It makes us look like we're failing, when in fact we're not."

Educators foresee other potential consequences: What if Utah gives bonuses to teachers at passing schools, as other states have? Perhaps good teachers will shun struggling schools. Will good students do the
same? Will teachers start teaching to the test, instead of to the students? Will students who aren't succeeding be pushed out of the
school system?

Ed Alba, principal of Mount Jordan Middle School in Sandy, knows it is unrealistic to expect students whose native language isn't English to be tested as if they were born here. He was 8 when his family moved to the United States from Mexico. It took him two to three years to really understand the language. Others say it takes at least seven years to develop academic language skills. "We've got some groups that come in new and, supposedly after one year, they're supposed to be proficient in
English. That's pretty much impossible," he said.

Even so, he and other teachers say they believe in high expectations. They say they simply need more time -- and money -- to
meet them. Mount Jordan failed because Latino, poor and disabled students didn't make enough progress in math and language arts.

Other teachers believe the new federal mandate is set up for failure. It happens before the tests are even taken. Schools flunk if a full 95 percent of each subgroup isn't tested. At Granger High, for example, only 92 percent showed.

School administrators complain that top students aren't even tested because they take higher-level math classes not included in the
accountability system.

Patricia Miller, a sixth-grade teacher at Salt Lake City's Edison Elementary, said she didn't need the federal law to tell her to target and help struggling students. She already does so. She has a master's degree and either has or is seeking special training to teach reading, gifted students and English learners.

But the school also educates every category of traditionally disadvantaged student: the poor, disabled, English learners. It is
labeled as failing because the school as a whole didn't do well enough in math and language arts. English learners in particular struggled on language tests, and poor students failed in math.

But Miller doubts the "failing" label helps.

"You're not going to get success from a feeling of failure," she said. "It [classroom energy] has to be positive because these kids are disadvantaged. Talking about failing all the time isn't going to help these children with their upward ability. They need the skills. That's what I'm here to do."

— Heather May
Educators reject 'failure' labeling
Salt Lake Tribune


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