U. S. School Progress Reports Defy Common Sense
At a faculty meeting recently, we teachers at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., received coffee mugs with the school name and the words ''Fully Accredited'' emblazoned in big, red letters. The principal's gift was a tongue-in-cheek award to recognize the fact that the school finally had reached the 70% passing benchmark on Virginia's Standards of Learning (SOL) exams and now was deemed worthy of full accreditation by the state board of education.
Even though I believe Virginia's high-stakes tests are dumbing down education, I couldn't help but be delighted that we'd hit the mark. I was tired of seeing the school publicly disparaged by the state for the past four years.
But my delight was tempered when I heard that even though we are in the state's good graces, we are on the federal government's blacklist for not meeting the Adequate Yearly Progress requirements of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.
Like most of my colleagues who were focused on getting students to pass the state SOLs, I hadn't paid a lot of attention to the federal law. But when I took a close look to find out where my school fell short, I didn't feel so bad.
The federal progress requirements defy common sense. Thousands of schools across the country that passed their states' exam benchmarks failed to meet NCLB's standards. Eighty-four percent of Florida's schools, for example, didn't make it; 78% of the Florida schools that attained an A rating under the state's standards fell short of the federal mark.
Recently, a number of state legislatures and educators have been attacking the law. Last week, Education Secretary Rod Paige announced major changes in the definition of ''a highly qualified'' teacher.
Paige has made similar moves to mollify critics. In December, he gave states a bit more flexibility in testing students with disabilities; last month, he granted non-English-speaking immigrants a year before their scores on English could be factored into a school's progress.
But even with those changes, the progress requirements are unreasonable. To meet the act's standards, schools have to show progress in reading and math scores, as well as attendance and graduation rates, for eight subgroups of students: blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, special-education students, the economically disadvantaged and those with limited English proficiency. Also, if fewer than 95% of the students in any of the subgroups fail to take the required exams, the school will not meet the progress requirements, though that rule is being reconsidered.
I am all for reporting the test scores of these groups. Alexandria's school system has been breaking down and publicizing scores by race, ethnicity and income for nearly two decades. The practice has forced teachers to face the fact that although we prepare many kids to go on to the most selective colleges in the country, we still must try harder to meet the needs of our low-income minority students.
The problem is what NCLB does with the data it makes schools gather. States have been allowed to set their own starting benchmarks to measure yearly progress. Virginia has begun by saying that 61% of a school's students in each of the subgroups must pass the SOLs in English and 59% in math.
Compared with some other states, that's a high starting point. The result was that hundreds of Virginia schools whose aggregate scores were way above the 70% passing benchmark for the state tests were branded as failing the federal standards because one or two of their subgroups fell short.
T.C. Williams didn't hit the federal mark because our black students were three points shy of the cutoff rate for math, and disabled students missed the math and English cutoffs. There is no question we have to do more with these students, but for the federal government to brand the entire school as failing does not give a fair picture of the school. In fact, when I look around my classes and see kids who have been accepted early to Harvard, Yale and other fine universities, I can't help but feel angry about the NCLB label.
The situation only will get worse in the future, because states must raise the bar for meeting the federal yearly progress standard every three years. Academic nirvana is supposed to be reached by 2014, when students in every school will have to be proficient in reading and math.
In reality, the act's goals are more quixotic and unreachable than those of the Goals 2000 legislation embraced by the first President Bush and President Clinton. Both assured us that by the turn of the century every U.S. student would be receiving a ''world-class education.''
The assumption behind the progress standards -- as it was with Goals 2000 -- is that just around the corner there is a magic formula for education. If teachers and school administrators are threatened with enough sanctions, the thinking goes, they will find this formula. Then, in a few years, all students will perform brilliantly, closing the gap between rich and poor, between kids from single-parent homes below the poverty line and kids from affluent homes where both parents have college degrees and every educational advantage.
The truth is that teachers have to take kids as they are and move them along as far as possible. Yes, schools should be forced to report test scores by subgroups; trends in the scores should be monitored and the tests used to find out what things kids are not understanding or teachers are not teaching. Teachers whose students score significantly below their colleagues' students from similar backgrounds should be retrained or eased out.
Some schools obviously will be seen as failing and in need of the interventions prescribed in No Child Left Behind. But unless the Bush administration wants more than half of U.S. schools to be labeled failures, the notion of what truly constitutes progress must be rethought.
Patrick Welsh has been an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., for more than 30 years. He's also a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES