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Rating Changes May Help Delaware Schools

Thanks to changes in the rating formula that will give schools credit for improvement, Delaware is expected to fare better than last year under No Child Left Behind, the federal school accountability law.

Ratings for every public school in the state will be announced Monday by the state Department of Education, which won federal government approval for two changes to the rating system as it applies to Delaware.

The rating system changes could prove critical for the state; last year, more than half its public schools didn't meet the law's performance goal. If they don't shed their poor ratings, the federal government could eventually withhold money from some, turn them into charter schools or put them under private management.

"We're in the process right now of doing the ratings," State Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff said last week. She said the changes do make a difference.

School superintendents who have previewed their ratings agreed. "There's no doubt, to the extent that labels help characterize the status of a school or a school district, the changes that the secretary was able to get approved are going to help the situation," Christina Superintendent Joseph Wise said.

Although school ratings will be announced Monday, district ratings will not be unveiled until late fall, said Nancy Wilson, associate secretary of curriculum and instructional improvements for the state. That's because the state expects to be granted a third change to the rating formula.

Unlike last year, in order to get a poor rating this year in Delaware, a school district would have to fail at all three levels: elementary, middle and high school. Last year, only two of the state's 19 school districts, Smyrna and Caesar Rodney, made "adequate yearly progress" in improving student scores on state standardized tests.

Last year, 57 percent of the state's schools failed to make adequate yearly progress. Of the state's 28 high schools, 25 were rated as under academic review. And only four of the 33 middle schools received a good rating.

"In reality, the law doesn't take into account the makeup of each individual school," said Debbie Whiteside of Newark, the mother of three children, ages 8, 9 and 11, in the Christina School District. "I'm curious to see what will come out Monday with the report."

State has unique points

Stung by last year's ratings even though they had made significant improvement since testing began here in 1998, school superintendents openly complained about Woodruff's stewardship. They said she had not done enough to protect schools from a federal rating system they said was unrealistic and unfair to a state with unusually diverse schools that started testing long before most states.

Under No Child Left Behind, students are broken down into subgroups by such characteristics as race, income and whether they are in special education classes. Schools must meet targets for each subgroup. Missing even one means a school fails; the more subgroups a school has, the more chances for failure.

Delaware is also at a disadvantage because it has been testing for seven years. It has already experienced the dramatic improvement that occurs in the early years of testing.

This spring, for instance, 82 percent of third-graders and 85 percent of fifth-graders met the state standard on Delaware's high-stakes reading test. Getting the remaining 15 percent to 18 percent to that level is a steeper climb. The law requires 100 percent of all students to pass state tests by the year 2014.

Despite the criticism, Woodruff said that she would not make changes in the tests or in the educational standards Delaware spent nearly a decade crafting. To protect their schools from the sanctions in No Child Left Behind, other states have made such changes. Some lowered the bar on their exams so that more students could pass.

Demanding changes

Woodruff adopted a different strategy, one of demanding equal treatment by the U.S. Department of Education. She hired a Washington, D.C., attorney and a consultant to find out what regulatory concessions other states were granted, then demanded that Delaware receive the same.

Delaware discovered, for instance, that Tennessee received permission to brand as failing only school districts that failed at all three educational levels. "So, we said, what's good for Tennessee would be good for Delaware," Woodruff explained.

The original No Child Left Behind law didn't contain an improvement factor either but some states have been allowed one, so Delaware was added to the list. Woodruff calls the improvement factor the "state progress indicator."

"It's a combined calculation that includes math, reading, science and social studies," she said.

In addition, Delaware sought another change in the federal formula that has been granted to several states this past year: a confidence indicator.

In other words, if a school misses but comes very close to making adequate yearly progress, it will not get a bad rating. Last year, the margin of error was so thin that New Castle Middle School came within less than a percentage point of making adequate yearly progress.

That meant a poor rating until one parent asked to see her child's test and, subsequently, challenged the testing company's marking of one answer. The company agreed the answer should have been accepted and changed the child's score. That changed the outcome of one subgroup, which, in turn, caused a change in the school's entire score. The school's rating suddenly went from failing to commendable.

Although they welcome changes that could give their schools better ratings this year, Wise and other superintendents are still highly critical of No Child Left Behind.

"The problem with all of this is that a one- or two-word label doesn't fully characterize the strengths and weaknesses of a school," Wise said.

Instead of forming a partnership with states to improve schools, Milford schools Superintendent Robert Smith said, the federal government launched a hostile takeover.

The law and its rating formula is so bizarre that, "literally, some of the best teaching in the state could be going on in a failing school," Smith said.

Bear Bureau reporter Michele Besso contributed to this report. Reach Michele Fuetsch at 324-2386 or mfuetsch@delawareonline.com.

— Michele Fuetsch
The News Journal
2004-08-01
http://www.delawareonline.com/newsjournal/local/2004/08/01ratingchangesma.html


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