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Missouri lets schools slide, U.S. report says

Ohanian Comment: When I was in Springfield, MO in April,
I was both fascinated and appalled
to learn that state inspectors at my
bed & breakfast were visiting every
Reading First classroom in the
state--to make sure everybody was
following the rules.

Missouri's major crime seems to be that
it didn't force schools to restructure,
i.e., dump the faculty and staff and start over.
Maybe, just maybe, Missorians
know more about those schools than do the Feds.


By David Hunn

Missouri has demanded too little of its schools and reprimanded their
shortcomings too slowly, according to a new federal report.

A team from the U.S. Department of Education has found dozens of problems with
the state's supervision of its schools, from simple differences in terminology
to major violations of the federal law known as No Child Left Behind.

The U.S. government is now asking Missouri's education department to review the
status of every school and every district in the state that has failed to meet
scoring targets on standardized tests for more than two years in a row ΓΆ€” about
200 schools and 167 districts.

"Missouri has a challenge," said Zollie Stevenson, chief of federal Student
Achievement and School Accountability Programs, and leader of the team that
reviewed Missouri. "The state needs to be more proactive ΓΆ€” actually going out
and monitoring."

Some think the federal teams are coming down harder on states than they have in
the past. The Missouri report is one of several recent instances where states
have been cited for letting districts slide.

Now Missouri districts face sanctions this school year that they didn't expect.

Some, such as Parkway, Ritenour and Fort Zumwalt, have relatively minor
penalties ΓΆ€” creating school improvement plans or offering some students
transfers to higher-performing schools within their districts.

But the schools that fell short most often may be forced to fire teachers and
principals, reopen as charter schools, or even close altogether.

State administrators do not know exactly how many will be affected. They say as
few as 20 could see unexpected penalties, but they're not yet sure which ones.

No Child Left Behind started a clock ticking in 2002, with the alarm set to go
off in 2014 when all schoolchildren are supposed to be proficient in reading
and math. Along the way are annual benchmarks for schools to meet and sanctions
when they don't.

"It appears Missouri reinterpreted the statute to provide for more time for
those decisions to be made," Stevenson said.

The federal team was so concerned that it even reserved the right to fine the
state ΓΆ€” as much as $500,000 this year.

State leaders ΓΆ€” like many educators across the country ΓΆ€” say No Child Left
Behind has been confusing and the guidelines murky.

But they say they've already begun fixing these problems.

WORST-CASE STATE

Every three years, the U.S. Department of Education checks to make sure each
state is monitoring its schools correctly. Not only does this keep schools on
track with the law, but it also allows the government to keep tabs on the $14
billion it gives schools to help low-income students.

Since the law took effect in 2002, U.S. teams have reprimanded nearly every
state, according to past federal reports. In 2005, Illinois was cited for
verifying test results too slowly, and not identifying failing schools until
the middle of the school year ΓΆ€” too late for parents to take advantage of
remedies offered under the law. In 2006, Wyoming didn't ensure all failing
schools developed improvement plans; South Carolina incorrectly calculated
district test scores. In 2007, Rhode Island was reprimanded for having
inconsistent standards for children learning to speak English.

But the errors caught in Missouri were more serious, experts say.

"This is really a worst-case state," said Phyllis McClure, a consultant in
Washington who has helped monitor states on points of education law since the
late 1960s.

She was stunned Missouri hadn't been monitoring district progress more closely.
The state had not asked to see district letters that should have been sent to
parents, explaining that their children could be eligible for tutoring or
transfers from failing schools, the report said. Nor had Missouri required
evidence that districts were giving the right amount of federal money to each
school. And while Missouri had monitored schools for test-score progress, it
hadn't held districts accountable for low scores.

And when schools failed tests, Missouri hadn't forced them down the federal
improvement path that begins with tutoring and transfers and leads to
"restructuring," where schools must shut down and start over with new leaders
and staff.

"The whole point of this requirement, these stages of corrective action, was
not to let these schools slide for so long before they got help," McClure said.

"Why have they been letting that go on for five years?" she asked.

A CONFUSING LAW

Becky Kemna, Missouri's new coordinator of school improvement, said No Child
Left Behind greatly increased requirements for schools.

Not only must their entire student bodies now meet yearly testing goals, but
each group of students ΓΆ€” black, white, Asian, low-income, special-education and
those learning English as a second language ΓΆ€” are held to the same standards.
And those standards increase each year.

It has been difficult, Kemna said, for state employees to interpret all of the
new rules. Federal guidelines initially encouraged interpretation. Now this
report, she said, has shown her the federal government doesn't tolerate as much
flexibility as first thought.

Kemna said the state must send its responses to the U.S. Department of
Education by the middle of this month. State officials fixed many of the
problems cited before the federal team even left, she said, but others will
take more effort.

The state will now ask to see letters before districts send them to parents. It
will compile yearly lists of districts that missed state testing goals and must
be penalized.

School administrators grumble that No Child Left Behind demands the impossible.

A 2007 survey shows state employees across the country say they simply don't
have enough people to monitor every school district.

Schools, however, have no choice but to work toward the goals they're given.

At the Patrick Henry Downtown Academy in St. Louis, a new principal pores over
test results, seeing which individual questions tripped up students in key
subject areas. Just 4 percent of Henry students passed the English test; only 1
percent passed math. The principal hopes to find out why.

In Webster Groves, the school district sent parents a letter last month saying
the district had barely missed the state's annual progress goals, and would
have to develop a plan for improvement. Administrators there have already
broadened expensive, one-on-one math and reading lessons for students who need
to boost test scores.

The Normandy School District had four schools cited this year for low test
scores, adding to two it already had on the list. "I think the state was
catching up," said Sheila Williams, the district's executive director of school
programs.

"All these designations, I don't want to say they don't mean anything to us,
but we're striving to get all these kids proficient, regardless," she said.

— David Hunn
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
2007-09-04
http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/stories.nsf/education/story/D0A9BA288DDC5FDA8625734C00084D57?OpenDocument


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