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NCLB Outrages

Federal rules put schools in a bind

By Sarah Hinckley

BRANDON â Neshobe Elementary School's Assistant Principal Judi Pulsifer describes the last four years under the No Child Left Behind Act as a roller-coaster ride.

All of Neshobe's students met the federal standardized testing benchmarks in 2004, the first year the new standards, known as annual yearly progress reports, were used to determine the school's performance.

But the Benson grade school's results went up and down from there. In 2005, a group of children who qualify for free and reduced lunch failed standards in reading, but scored proficiently the next two years. That same group failed the math standards by four points this year.

This mixed scorecard doesn't sound like grounds for failure, but the results put Neshobe on a blacklist that schools across the country want to avoid. When a single subcategory of students fails to meet the testing standards, the entire school falls short of the annual yearly progress goals. Statewide, it is the students who qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program who most consistently struggle to meet testing benchmarks.

Exacerbating Neshobe's difficulties is the fact that the federal benchmarks were raised this year. The No Child Left Behind Act resets the standards every three years; ultimately, all students are to achieve academic proficiency in math, reading, writing and science by 2014.

"Our scores did not dip, we continued to rise, but the bar was raised," said Pulsifer about the results. "You're moving forward and making gains and then the bar is raised. I guess that's where my frustration lies. ⦠It is my feeling that all schools in the country are going to be checkmark schools."

A checkmark school, as Pulsifer puts it, fails to make the annual yearly progress results in at least one student category, for at least one testing subject.

38 percent of Vermont schools fail

The state of Vermont is still reeling from the annual yearly progress reports released at the end of April, in which 116 schools failed to make the grade. Seventy-nine of those schools fell short for the first time. Overall, 38 percent of Vermont schools failed to meet AYP.

The reports were based on scores from the weeklong New England Common Assessment Program exams, which were taken by third- through eighth-graders and 11th-grade students in the fall of 2007.

It was the first time high school juniors were required to take the tests, and their NECAP results were dismal. Only 30 percent tested proficient or better in math. Writing scores were marginally better, with 39 percent of juniors' results falling in the proficient or higher range. The strongest results were in reading. Sixty-seven percent of 11th-graders scored proficient or better.

Critics of the federal law complain that comparisons of Vermont's earlier testing scores are misleading because when the annual yearly progress report was released in 2004, the results were based on the New Standards Reference Exam, which tested fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders. The New England Common Assessment Program for third- through eighth-grade pupils replaced that test in 2005.

"It would be like asking a kid, 'Last year you were five feet, 11 inches; this year, you're 160 pounds, how much did you grow?'" said William Mathis, superintendent of Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in 2006, in response to the test scores from 2004 to 2005. "The comparisons are meaningless."

The proficiency goals for student achievement under No Child Left Behind were set at what experts believed were achievable levels. But the federal levels increase every three years, and this year was the first time, in the fourth year of measuring, that "the bar," was raised. Consequently, a higher number of Vermont schools did not achieve annual yearly progress standards.

"I think it's hard on a staff that knows they're working very hard to do what's best for students and still not meet that bar," said Pulsifer.

A school or a subcategory within a school that doesn't make adequate yearly progress for two years is put on a "needs improvement" list. If a school doesn't make progress for four consecutive years, the school is subject to what is known as "corrective action."

Under corrective action, schools, receive more direct supportive services from the state. Ultimately, if a school is still unable to show improvement, the state can take over the school.

A school must make annual yearly progress for two years in a row to be removed from either "corrective action" or the "needs improvement" list.

"There is something very seriously wrong with this system," said William Mathis, superintendent for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union.

To find out more about the state's AYP process and standards, go to http://education.vermont.gov/new/html/pgm accountability/ayp faq.html

Is testing taking over?

Pulsifer, the Neshobe principal, says their school sets aside at least a week and a half for the testing.

The New England Common Assessment Program is offered in four subject areas. All students in grades three through eight and 11 are tested for reading and math. Fifth-, eighth- and 11th-graders are tested for writing, while fourth-, eighth- and 11th-graders are tested in science.

Reading and math tests eat up three full school days. The writing portion of the test absorbs two half-days. Schools are required to take two 90-minute blocks and one two-hour block over a three-day period for the science portion. Add it all up and it's at least a week out of every school year just for the NECAP. And then there are district level tests such as the Terra Nova and national college entrance exams such as the SAT and the ACT.

"It's not as time consuming as the NECAP," said Pulsifer, who cross-checks the results from their district test, Terra Nova, with those from the NECAP. "It has made us look at data in a different way."

Washington Central Supervisory Union's Director of Curriculum Instruction and Assessment Carole Freeman pointed out required testing times does not include the additional time it takes to explain the format to students.

"The students who spend the most time taking statewide tests are grades eight and 11 â (they) get hit with everything," said Freeman.

Freeman said longer exam periods may be necessary for children who do not test well or are absent.

Getting NECAPed

Recently, schools around the state took the science portion of the New England Common Assessment Program tests for grades 4, 8 and 11. The science exam was given as a pilot program last year and is now required statewide. Students were tested in the other core subjects â reading, math and writing â last fall.

The New England Common Assessment was created by educational professionals from the Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island education departments. In Vermont, the test is used to gauge whether schools are meeting AYP and to assess student achievement against the grade expectations spelled out in the Vermont Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities, the state's curriculum guidelines.

"The NECAP is to provide very specific information about individual children and individual schools," said Freeman.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires that states report student performance on the NECAP annually by seven subcategories, according to the Vermont Department of Education. A school must have at least 40 students who qualify for one of the subcategories to be counted. The subcategories are gender, major racial/ethnic categories, students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students, students with limited English proficiency and migrant students.

Only schools with more than 40 students in a sub-group are judged on the performance of those students. This year the schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress were predominately larger schools that had more than 40 students in a subgroup. Someone looking at the data might wonder whether small schools do a better job of teaching. But it's impossible to tell that from the data because results from the small schools don't reflect how successfully they teach students who are poor or disabled, or whose mother tongue is not English: Those students are lumped with the total.

"You can forget about the quality of the school, on whether they're going to make AYP or not," said Mathis. "What you look at is the percentage of poverty ⦠It costs you 40 to 60 percent more to educate poor children. If you fail to make AYP, like Neshobe, you get something like $20,000. What are you going to get for $20,000? Maybe some instructional materials."

Teaching to tests

From the beginning, educators and parents have worried that as schools have emphasized testing that instruction increasingly is specifically geared toward the tests.

A curriculum director, assistant principal and a superintendent interviewed for this story, all admit that is exactly what is happening.

"What I recommend for teachers is good teaching all year," said Freeman.

The New England Common Assessment Program focused on math and reading for the first year of implementation. Writing was introduced in 2005 to fifth- and eighth-graders, and the science test debuted this spring.

When scores in math and reading came in below par, schools shifted their focus from other subjects. This resulted in low scores once writing and science were introduced on the standardized test.

"This is a guaranteed failure system," said Mathis, who has spoken nationally on the subject. "Educators can't use that as an apology or an excuse, but at the same time we have to accept that as a reality that we deal with. This diminishes creativity, writing and thinking. It's not what the parents want (and) not what the public wants."

But there is a group of people who are benefiting from the standards-based teaching-â publishers of education materials and programs. Parents may hear about programs like Everyday Mathematics and Investigations Mathematics that are being used in their children's school. According to Freeman, publishers know what grade expectations are for each state and cater programs to them.

"Education is and has been highly political," said Freeman, noting that some of the programs have not been successful. "There's a lot out there that's not particularly good for kids, but is more driven by a political agenda, and we have to be very careful about that."

How many tests are there?

Although the New England Common Assessment Program is the most emphasized standardized test, there are also tests taken by students to measure district, or local, standards and then there are national achievement tests.

In Vermont, students begin taking standardized tests by second grade. All students are required to undergo a Developmental Reading Assessment. This test not only requires a half-hour of student time, it also requires a special certification for second grade teachers who assess each student's reading ability.

Depending on the number of students, this can take a significant amount of time. For example, if a teacher has 16 students, he or she must find eight hours within the month of May, during the school day, for testing. In schools that have more than one second grade class, it is rare for more than one classroom teacher to be certified for testing.

"You want every teacher trained to give the assessment," said Freeman, who has been an elementary teacher and principal. "Schools have to make special arrangements so these assessments can be given."

Special arrangements may mean bringing in a reading specialist or substitute for the class while the teacher is testing pupils, Freeman explained.

Once children reach third grade, the New England Common Assessment Program begins. Testing takes place in the fall, so children tested in third grade are actually being tested on what they learned in second grade. In an effort to help the students achieve their best scores, educators take time to prepare children by introducing them to the test format.

"On the answer page, if you write outside the box, the answer doesn't count," said Freeman. "So children need to see that format."

A percentage of third- and eighth-grade pupils across the country are tested every other year during a half-day of school for the National Assessment of Education Progress, which is given by the U.S. Department of Education. Next year students are slated to take the NAEP test.

Measuring up

How do Vermont students compare to their counterparts in the rest of the country? Based on tests such as the National Assessment of Education Progress, they perform well.

The 2007 results showed Vermont students scored higher than the national average on measures of achievement for grades four and eight in reading and math. Vermont was one of four states to have the highest average scale score in eighth-grade reading. Students showed improvement in all areas except fourth-grade reading, which was still higher than the national average.

"I think Washington Central has very good schools," said Freeman, although U-32 High School is the only high school in the central Vermont district that did not make AYP this year, the first time any school in the supervisory district has not. "I think Vermont in general has very good schools."

To find out more about the 2007 National Education Assessment Progress, go to http://education.vermont.gov/new/pdfdoc/pgm assessment/data/NAEP/overview 07.pdf

Staff writer Mel Huff contributed to this report.

— Sarah Hinckley
Rutland Herald


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