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School's in, but 'No Child' report isn't

Even though the new school year is here, parents in Texas and many other states still don't know whether their children are attending poor performing schools and are eligible to transfer to better ones.

Texas is late because of months of haggling with federal education officials over the state's request to ease standards for students with limited English skills and those with disabilities. That fight, which Texas lost, began April 1 and didn't end until late July, just a few weeks before the first day of school.

"The U.S. Department of Education had to make the approval, so we're sort of at their mercy," said Suzanne Marchman, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. The TEA had expected a quicker answer, she said.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act signed by President Bush in 2002, students are entitled to free bus transportation out of schools that fail in consecutive years to make progress toward having all their students meet minimum standards by 2014. In Texas, about 300 campuses most of them high schools are in danger of missing that mark.

Tracking progress
Each state has its own definition of progress. Texas' system tracks students' performance on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, high school graduation rates, and attendance rates in elementary and middle schools. Schools are tagged with the "needs improvement" label if any group of students white, black, Hispanic, low-income or special education, for example comes up short .

Parents are supposed to find out before the school year begins whether their child's school has met its achievement goals. But the Texas Education Agency is still crunching numbers, and officials there can't say when they'll have the list ready. Meanwhile, school has already begun in many school districts and the rest will get under way next week.

So parents with children in schools that aren't up to snuff will be stuck making a difficult choice: Leave them where they are in the hopes the school will improve, or pull them out just as they're getting used to their new classes.

"Parents would like to have that (information) before their kids go back to school. That should be obvious," said Pam Meyercord, president of the 675,000-member Texas Parent-Teacher Association based in Austin. "It's going to be a mad scramble now, and anything you do now is always disruptive and that doesn't make anyone happy."

Texas is not alone
Besides Texas, about half the states across the countryhaven't reported their "Adequate Yearly Progress," or AYP, results, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Like Texas, many of the tardy states lost time arguing with federal officials about how to go about calculating their progress, Department of Education spokeswoman Susan Aspey wrote in an e-mail. A "handful" of states are still negotiating with the department, she said.

Federal officials haven't decided whether the states that file late AYP reports will face sanctions, Aspey said.

"We're not going to pre-judge any situation until we fully consider the issues," she said. "That said, we hope that schools and districts are acting in good faith and trying to offer parents choices when that might be an appropriate step to take."

Officials at some Houston-area school districts said they don't expect many parents to take advantage of the transfer option at the few schools that might fall short of their goals for the second year in a row.

"We are confident that none of those campuses will be listed," said Mike Keeney, spokesman for the Aldine Independent School District.

The Houston school district already allows students to attend any school that has room and does not expect many students to move.

Looking beyond scores
Parents shouldn't base their opinion of their child's school on the federal report anyway, said professor Linda McNeil, who runs Rice University's Center for Education.

"Some of the very best schools are showing up below the cutoff," she said. "Often, increases in the test scores don't mean an increase in the quality of an education."

Houston's Bellaire High School, for example, received low AYP marks last year, at the same time it was included on a list of the nation's top 100 high schools.

Parents should look at the number of college-bound graduates and average SAT scores when determining whether their high school is a good one, McNeil said.

"The parents really need to look at the quality of the assignments they're bringing home," she said. "Are they reading good literature, or are they doing multiple choice work sheets?"


— Jason Spencer
Houston Chronicle


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