Who Defines School Progress?
THE NO CHILD Left Behind Act, touted by President Bush as a signature accomplishment of his first term, is intended to pressure schools to improve student performance, and punish them if they didn't. Schools receiving federal funds to help poor children are required to make "adequate yearly progress," or AYP, and face consequences if they don't.
The problem is that the legislation didn't take into account that many states -- including California -- already had an accountability system in place. In California, schools are ranked on a scale of 1 to 10 on a complicated Academic Performance Index, or API. Those who fail to improve their scores also face a range of sanctions.
What we now have are two accountability systems that often conflict with each other. Rather than providing parents with a clear idea of how their local schools are doing, the competing systems have cast confusion over the entire testing and accountability landscape.
The latest testing results show that API scores at two-thirds of the state's schools rose compared to last year. But they also showed that nearly 2, 000 California schools improved on the state accountability system but flunked on the federal system.
The conflicting assessment regimens yielded some bizarre results. In the Bay Area, 606 schools failed to make "adequate yearly progress" based on federal standards, but three-quarters of them got improved scores on the state's performance index. Piedmont, whose schools have one of the highest API rankings in the state, was told it had not made "adequate yearly progress." Why? Nine disabled students didn't take the test.
In Hayward, 32 of its 33 schools met their state API goals, but 20 of them failed to make "adequate yearly progress" under the federal legislation. For example, API scores at Hayward's Mount Eden High School improved by 45 points in a single year, but the school failed to get an "AYP" rating. The reason? Only 94 percent of Latino students, instead of the 95 percent mandated by the No Child Left Behind law, took the language arts and math portions of the test last spring.
It is a fine goal to force a school to test as many students as possible, especially if there is any suspicion that it is consciously deterring underperforming students from taking the test. But to slap a school with failing to make "adequate yearly progress" simply because a few students did not take a test -- in Mount Eden's case two students out of a student population of 2,354 -- is going too far.
"It is very confusing, and we're trying to educate our parents on the dual system," said Debbie Bradshaw, Hayward's director of assessment and accountability. "We tell parents to visit schools, because that is where they'll find out what is happening.
The "95 percent" rule is just one of numerous flaws in the federal legislation. Adding to the confusion is that deciphering what has become an avalanche of scores and data on schools can be an exercise in frustration. It is nearly impossible to figure out why a school exceeded its goals on the "API" yet failed to make "AYP" as demanded by the feds.
"There must be a way so that teachers, principals and parents are tracking one set of indicators," said Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, a former regional director for the U.S. Department of Education.
What's needed is a uniform accountability system -- so that the federal government is working in concert with states to improve schools.
We urge all those involved with the educational enterprise -- in Washington, Sacramento and elsewhere -- to clean up this testing morass.
San Francisco Chronicle
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