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NCLB Outrages

'No Child Left Behind' Law Threatens School

Ohanian Comment: Read this carefully. Your school could be next.

Four years ago, Verde Elementary School in North Richmond, where the students are black, brown and poor, had no children who were proficient in reading and math at their grade level.

Today, student performance is soaring. Verde's test scores are improving at a rate seven times better than the state expected this year.

But federal officials aren't applauding. Under their No Child Left Behind rules, Verde could be shut down next year and its energetic principal fired.

Verde is not alone. It is one of 403 California schools that more than doubled academic performance on state rankings over two years yet failed to meet the federal standard under which 13.6 percent of students have to score "proficient" in language arts and 16 percent in math.

Schools that fail to meet those standards two years in a row are placed in a category called "Program Improvement" and given extra money to improve. If schools still don't meet the standards after three years, severe sanctions kick in, such as those Verde may face next year.

Verde's black students missed the 16 percent math proficiency requirement by a margin of just one student.

Its kids missed the 13.6 percent requirement in language arts by eight students. English-learners missed by 10, and Latinos missed by 11.

In all, 189 Verde students took the test.

Yet progress has been steady at Verde, thanks to intensive tutoring, attention to test scores and a staff tuned in to success.

"We're working very hard," said Principal Janice Thompson. "For the first time in years, we're not at the bottom. We're excited, and we celebrate the progress -- but we have our dark side, and that's No Child Left Behind right now, with federal sanctions."

State Superintendent Jack O'Connell agrees with her. On Wednesday, he and 13 other state schools chiefs sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige asking that states be given more flexibility in deciding which schools should be sanctioned.

The education accountability law dubbed No Child Left Behind was signed by President Bush two years ago.

Under the law, schools like Verde may score well on state exams, even improving steadily. By state standards, such schools are successful. But the federal law requires states to set a cutoff level of "proficiency" on their exams and says specific proportions of students must score at that level each year. But here's the rub: The proportion of students required to score "proficient" has to rise steadily until 2013, when 100 percent proficiency will be the law.

"Calculations suggest that within a few years, the vast majority of all schools will be identified as in need of improvement," the superintendents told Paige.

They said states prefer to direct their limited education dollars to schools that are failing to improve altogether, rather than those that are improving -- but not as quickly as federal officials would like, the letter said.

In California, for example, 22 percent of schools did not meet the state's achievement targets this year, and O'Connell said money should be aimed at helping them, rather than those that met the targets but failed federal standards.

The superintendents told Paige they support No Child Left Behind but want the option of measuring success by improvement rather than an arbitrary standard.

"We find NCLB's requirement that all schools show adequate yearly progress by reaching a single bar ... has had the unintended effect of penalizing ... thriving systems," the letter said. Improvement "actually is more congruent with high academic standards and rigorous definitions of student proficiency" than requiring a single threshold.

Surprisingly, the letter supported the idea that all students should score "proficient" by 2013. Yet O'Connell acknowledged that he and many other educators think the goal is unrealistic, if not impossible, to meet.

"I don't know of any school that is meeting that goal today," O'Connell told reporters. "It's a good goal. But it's a Herculean task."

The other superintendents signing the letter were from Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington.

Even as O'Connell announced the letter, Secretary Paige was e-mailing a response to it across the country. He said, in effect, "No."

"No Child Left Behind must be given a chance to work," Paige wrote. "We are only two years into historic reforms to close an achievement gap that has been decades in the making. ... Regrettably, there are some who would prefer to weaken accountability standards, regardless of the children who will be left behind as a result. Let me be very clear: Changing the law to satisfy the concerns of the system at the expense of children learning is misguided and wrong."

O'Connell denied trying to weaken the law. The superintendents want to "fix it," not "nix it," he said. And he vowed not to be deterred. In fact, he had made a similar request last year on behalf of California that also was turned down.

But this year, he said, "we're prepared to pursue legislation. I'm not going away."

At the same time, a key architect of No Child Left Behind said the superintendents were wrong. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, said that changing the rules would cause unnecessary delaying in getting all students proficient in reading and math.

At Verde Elementary, meanwhile, the students' tutoring program originally was paid for by baseball star Barry Bonds and the United Way. As those funds have dried up, Thompson has relied on the $71,000 that Verde receives each year for being in Program Improvement -- the same system that could threaten her job next year.

Thompson said she is well aware of the financial incentive to keep scores down, lest the money vanish overnight.

"But I don't want to have that kind of thinking," she said. "Hopefully, someone will help us make up the difference."

E-mail Nanette Asimov at nasimov@sfchronicle.com

— Nanette Asimov
San Francisco Chronicle


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