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Negotiating Failure with the Feds

Suspecting that Pennsylvania's official list of low-performing schools is distorted by errors, the incoming state secretary of education has removed the list from the Internet and is reviewing it.

The list, which includes more than 100 schools in Western Pennsylvania, should be revised and released in a few weeks, according to education department press secretary Keith Pierce.

State Education Secretary-designee Vicki Phillips is in "re-negotiation stages" with the U.S. Department of Education, which requires states to keep track of low-performing schools. Pierce said Phillips wants to "take a harder look" at the schools.

Pierce said that some schools in empowerment districts -- the official term for state-designated poor-performing districts -- have improved and may have been incorrectly included on the list. That includes some schools in Lancaster, where Phillips was a superintendent before being nominated by Gov. Ed Rendell for the state job.

The previous administration, in late December, posted a list of 884 public schools that didn't meet standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The state has 3,248 public schools.

On the list, 707 failed to meet the required academic proficiency standards in reading, math or both on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests.

Another 108 made the list solely because fewer than 95 percent of their students took the state tests.

An additional 69 were singled out solely because "subgroups" of students -- economically disadvantaged, major racial or ethnic groups, those with special needs and those with limited English proficiency -- didn't make the grade.

The roster was intended as an "alert list" and did not carry any immediate sanctions.

Schools that make the final list, however, ultimately will need to offer educational alternatives to families, including transfers to other public schools.

Pennsylvania is among the states farthest along in the federal review of plans to comply with No Child Left Behind Act. The U.S. Department of Education has approved plans in five other states. Of the remainder, Pennsylvania and Mississippi are the only two to have gone through peer review and received federal comments. The state plans must have federal approval by May 31.

The state Board of Education is scheduled to discuss the No Child Left Behind Act at its study session March 19 in Harrisburg and to vote March 20 on a definition of a persistently dangerous school, a requirement under the federal act.

The federal comments, received about a month ago, came from Eugene Hickok, U.S. undersecretary of education and former Pennsylvania education secretary. His letter questioned several elements of the state's plan, including the minimum number of students Pennsylvania uses for racial, economic and other subgroups.

Pennsylvania holds schools accountable for subgroups with at least 75 students; however, most of the approved states are using 30 as their minimum number.

Under No Child Left Behind, if students in just one subgroup perform below standards, the school is declared "low-performing" and may be subject to sanctions. But if a school has too few students in a subgroup to be considered statistically reliable, then the subgroup isn't singled out, no matter how low the results.

With a subgroup size of 75, only a small portion of schools in Pennsylvania qualify to be held accountable solely based on the test scores of the subgroups.

Karl Girton, chairman of the state Board of Education, said he supports that number. Phillips said she hasn't made up her mind.

"I'm looking to see if we have the technical evidence and if we can defend it or if we can't," she said.

Hickok also commented on the state's plan to use different tests to assess students' math and reading skills.

Pennsylvania gives the PSSA tests -- Pennsylvania System of School Assessment -- in math and reading in grades five, eight and 11 and is adding grade three this year. The federal act requires annual testing each year from grades three through eight.

So, Pennsylvania is considering permitting school districts to use national standardized tests to fill in the grades. Exactly what tests will be permitted hasn't been decided, but plans call for a choice of no more than three.

Girton said that, if scores can be converted from one test to another, this mix would provide the best look at student achievement because it would rely on more than one instrument.

"The board's interest is making sure we're not achieving progress through smoke and mirrors and that we are in fact going where we're committed to go," he said.

Phillips said she's still reviewing the state's plan."We're also learning from some other states and looking at what other states are doing," she said.

Girton thinks the state is in "pretty good shape" for reaching federal approval of the plan, but sees some hurdles.

"The $64,000 question is getting the tools into the hands of schools that make it possible for them to comply. I think that's a very major task that everybody's going to have to remain committed to for a long time to come," he said.

— Eleanor Chute
Mistakes suspected in state's list of poor-performing schools
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
March 10, 2003


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