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NCLB Outrages

Sometimes NCLB Gives Rural Schools an Edge

Ohanian Comment: Confidence Level: Another NCLB morass.

A glance at Utah schools' No Child Left Behind reports make it look as if youngsters behind bars are leaders in academic achievement.

All eight of Ogden's Youth in Custody and other programs for youths in crisis made "adequate yearly progress" on test scores and other hurdles erected by the federal government.

Testing bosses say it's a fluke that comes with No Child Left Behind and the state's efforts to fairly apply the law in geographically diverse Utah.

But what's happening appears to be this: Rules intended to ensure achievement in small schools accurately represents the whole seem to be putting small schools at an advantage in making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the federal law.

"I think there are some rural schools doing really well," said Dixie Allen, a State Board of Education member representing rural eastern Utah from Daggett to San Juan school districts. "I don't think (the issue) suggests they're not doing their job. I just think they have an easier path. It's just an unlevel playing field. It's like comparing apples to oranges."

Fourteen of Utah's 40 school districts, plus its charter schools, had 100 percent of schools making adequate yearly progress. All but one Tooele were in small, rural school districts: Daggett, Garfield, Juab, Kane, Millard, Morgan, Tintic, South Sanpete, Sevier, Rich, Piute and Wayne.

By contrast, Jordan, the state's largest school district with 74,000 students, had just under half its schools making AYP.

There are some anomalies, however.

In the 13,000-student Cache School District, 43 percent of schools failed to make AYP. The 1,450-student Grand School District, nestled in Utah's rural red rock country, posted a 50-50 pass-fail rate. And Salt Lake County's Granite School District, the state's second largest with more than 69,000 students, showed two-thirds of schools made AYP.

Still, there's a sizeable enough pattern that some school officials are questioning whether AYP does what it's supposed to: identify schools that truly need to improve.

"These results are a better indicator of size than of quality. The bigger schools are not passing, even though our specialty schools are," Provo Superintendent Randy Merrill said. "A single report of information is not a good way to judge a total school, especially when the way the information is compiled is questionable."

Adequate yearly progress comes under the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President Bush in early 2002. The act aims to have all children, regardless of ethnicity, income, disability or English language skill level, score as proficient on state tests in Utah, the core curriculum test, or CRT by 2014.

Movement toward the goal is measured through adequate yearly progress. Utah's first AYP reports were released Monday. About two-thirds of schools made the mark.

Information about specific schools' performance is available at www.usoe.k12.ut.us and on individual school district Web sites. A list of which schools made AYP and which did not is at deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,575037091,00.html.
Basically, AYP requires schools to do two things: test 95 percent of students, and either meet state benchmarks in language arts and math, or show enough improvement toward that academic goal.

That rule applies to the whole school, plus nine groups of students: economically disadvantaged, Caucasian, African American, American Indian, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency. If one group misses a mark, the whole school fails to make AYP.

The all-or-nothing system doesn't sit well with some Utah parents and school officials. Some also question whether it's fair to hold special education students to the same standard as a gifted child.

There's not much the State Office of Education can do about those standards.

But it did try to fairly apply No Child Left Behind rules in Utah, where schools might enroll 12 students, as is the case at Wendover's Callao School, or 2,000 in some Wasatch Front high schools.

Still, size still matters in No Child Left Behind. And if the schools are small, "it makes it more likely they'll meet the (AYP) criteria," state testing coordinator Louise Moulding said.

Schools must have at least 40 students to be counted under the participation rule and at least 10 students to be counted for academic achievement. Schools with too few students in any one group of students, such as African-Americans, automatically make AYP in that area.

And those automatic "passes" are easier to come by in rural schools because many lack the diversity of a Wasatch Front school. The same goes for other small schools.

Valley High School, an alternative school in Jordan District, showed 86 percent of 14 students were proficient in math. Last year, the number was 71 percent. The school made AYP because of the test score gain.

Good things might be going on in those schools, Jordan District testing director Frank Shaw said. But AYP reports don't tell him much. That's because a single child's test score carries so much weight, it's hard to see what's really happening.

The State Office of Education knew that would be the case in Utah's smallest schools. So it devised a plan: Apply a statistical "confidence interval" to scores to ensure they are sound.

A confidence interval can be likened to an error margin, Moulding said. The smaller the school, the wider the margin.

The idea is to make it so schools aren't identified as failing to meet standards based on statistical chance alone, and so a school's performance isn't placed on the shoulders of a single student.

But this year, the rule did give some schools wiggle room.

"The confidence interval was significant in many schools having made AYP," said Laurie Lacy, No Child Left Behind specialist at the State Office of Education. "It's just right there."

For example, schools are supposed to have 65 percent of students scoring as proficient on the language arts test.

If a group has just 10 students in it, that means seven of them have to score as proficient under the state standard.

But the confidence interval makes it so as few as four could score as proficient, according to data compiled by the State Office of Education, and the state would deem that close enough.

That happened at Jordan Resource elementary, a Jordan District school for special-needs students. The school got a "pass" in language arts because just three children took the test. In math, 11 students took the test, and 55 percent scored as proficient. The standard is 57 percent.

The confidence interval narrows for larger groups.

Let's say 100 students are taking the language arts test. Though the state standard remains 65 percent proficiency, the school could have as few as 54 percent of students scoring as proficient and be OK. But a group of 400 students would have to have more than 59 percent of students scoring as proficient to meet the goal.

That confidence interval played out in the favor of some rural schools, Moulding said. But the state had few better options. It could have required a school to have, say, 80 students in each testing group in order to count for academic achievement. But that would make it so several rural schools wouldn't have to file reports at all.

Also, the confidence interval won't help schools as much once the achievement bar starts moving, Moulding said. Every two years, more students are expected to score as proficient until 2014, when every Utah schoolchild will have to be proficient.

In that sense, the confidence interval should be seen not as a free pass, but an invitation to get cracking.

"If a school falls within the confidence interval," Moulding said. "They need to pay attention."

— Jennifer Toomer-Cook and Tiffany Erickson
Edge for small schools?
Deseret Morning News


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