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Schools Blame Rules for Bad Marks

GASTONIA - County and state education officials said Thursday that Gaston County Schools can blame a flaw in the state and federal accountability programs for its status as a district that needs improvement.

The federal No Child Left Behind program requires all students to pass math and reading exams. Passing means students perform at or above their grade level in those subjects.

But some students enrolled in special education programs who can't meet the standard are required to take the same exams as non-disabled students. That's what happened in Gaston.

The "needs improvement" label means the district has to offer additional staff training. Officials also were required to send a letter home to students and parents informing of the school system's status.

Gaston -- which had about 30,000 students last school year -- has 4,085 students in its exceptional children program, which helps children with learning, mental, physical and emotional disabilities. Of those students, 1,929 took the same test as students without disabilities, but too few made the grade, according to the federal government. All 15 of Gaston's 53 schools that failed to meet federal standards fell short because students with disabilities couldn't pass math and reading exams.

Cathy Boshamer, director of exceptional children programs for Gaston County Schools, said testing children with disabilities under the same standard as other children without disabilities is unfair. The tests determine whether students have made a year's worth of progress from the previous grade level. Boshamer said disabled children might make a year's worth of progress, but at a grade level lower than the one they're in because of their disability.

Elsie Leak, the state's associate superintendent over curriculum and school reform, said Gaston received the "needs improvement" label because No Child Left Behind holds children with disabilities to the same standard as those without disabilities.

Students with severe and profound disabilities such as autism qualify to take an alternative test. But students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia must take the same test as other students, Leak said.

A fifth-grader, for example, who reads on a fourth-grade level because of a learning disability would have to take the fifth-grade end-of-grade exam.

"Children with disabilities are the group that most often causes a school to not meet (federal standards)," Leak said. "Until that disconnect is worked out, some school systems will still have to focus a great deal on this area."

Gaston school officials said they were disappointed last week to learn that Gaston County school system was one of 43 districts statewide and seven Charlotte metro area districts labeled as needing improvement.

Gaston County met 91.8 percent of its federal goals in 2003-04 compared to 73 percent the previous year, outperforming some neighboring districts including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which was not labeled as needing improvement.

Staff members at 35 of Gaston's 53 schools will receive bonuses this year because of the improvements.

"I'm very much disappointed that we have this label especially in light of the really positive achievements of our students last school year," Superintendent Ed Sadler said.

Gaston has been offering training to help students with reading and math deficiencies catch up to their peers.

"One of the things about No Child Left Behind is that the rules are being written as they go," Sadler said. "You find out after the fact that you have a problem when you didn't even know you were in trouble. I want people to know we have made significant progress (overall)."


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Karen Cimino: (704) 868-7742; kcimino@charlotteobserver.com.

— Karen Cimino
Charlotte Observer
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http://www.charlotte.com/mld/observer/news/local/states/north_carolina/counties/gaston/9388832.htm


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