New Bottom Line for Top Honor
Ohanian Comment: Since these NCLB Blue Ribbon schools were announced on 9/17/, we're going to see these articles popping up around the country. Give this reporter credit for raising some questions about the shift in emphasis.
And note that the Fed talks about schools needing to adhere to federal standards.
The U.S. Education Department's most prestigious academic achievement award, the National Blue Ribbon, goes each year to the schools deemed the nation's best, and yesterday it went to four schools in the region.
For one of them, Wrightstown Elementary in Bucks County, it was the second such prize in five years.
A look at what Wrightstown had to show in each of those two years illustrates a dramatic shift in the way U.S. schools are judged, and reflects the continuing debate over the best way to gauge a school's success.
When Wrightstown won in 1999, it completed a 40-page application that described all facets of school life, from academics to parental involvement to school safety.
This year the school submitted a 12-page application that focused mainly on test scores. Since the advent two years ago of the federal school-accountability act, No Child Left Behind, the federal government has placed more emphasis on test scores, and the Blue Ribbon criteria are no exception.
"Your school now stands out as one of the best in the United States," Robert Baker, an Education Department official, told Wrightstown students. "The way you got there was on your test scores. You know, the PSSAs you don't like to take?"
Blue Ribbons were also won by Haddonfield Memorial High School in Camden County; Wallingford Elementary in Swarthmore, Delaware County; and the Laboratory Charter School of Communications and Languages in Philadelphia.
Critics of the shift in the way schools are evaluated say standardized tests alone do not accurately measure what happens in the nation's schools.
"There should be tests; there should be accountability," a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, Michael Carr, said. "But there should be more than tests to determine whether a school is succeeding."
But others believe standardized tests are the single best way to make sure schools are doing what they should.
Parent participation and after-school programs are important, said Ross Wiener, policy director at the Education Trust, an education advocacy group that works to help schools raise student achievement, particularly among minority groups. But "at the end of the day, you want to be confident those schools don't just have the process right, they have the substance right of teaching students well."
In South Jersey, students at Haddonfield High are expected to excel academically. From state test results to SAT scores, its students have been among the top performers in the region.
"It's what we expect, and the kids know that," principal Priscilla T. Vimislik said.
The Laboratory Charter School focuses on meeting state standards, and students are not promoted unless they do. Students also must become familiar with standardized tests, learn study skills, and practice answering open-ended questions.
Before the Blue Ribbon awards were changed to reflect the philosophies of No Child Left Behind, test scores were only a piece of what the schools were judged on.
In the year that Wrightstown won its first Blue Ribbon, the school submitted results from the three standardized tests. It also told how those scores were used to improve student achievement.
The application included more than 30 pages of essays from Wrightstown about its approach to education.
The material described how the school, which has about 360 pupils, tried to meet the needs of all students. The documents told what students had to achieve to be promoted to the next grade and how technology was used in their classrooms. The application described how teachers were hired at Wrightstown, how they were assigned classes, and what professional development they were engaged in.
The judges wanted to know how the school involved families in their children's education and how the curriculum prepared students to continue learning.
Someone from the department also visited the school to look at documents and conduct interviews.
This year's process was different, Wrightstown principal Kevin King said. The Pennsylvania Department of Education told Wrightstown it had nominated the school for the Blue Ribbon based on its Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test scores.
Descriptions of its programs and other activities were reduced to just over five pages.
In an interview yesterday, Stephen O'Brien, the U.S. Department of Education's director of recognition programs, said that in the past, Blue Ribbon judges just looked at test scores to see whether students were achieving.
The tests are now aligned with federal and state learning standards, he said, so if a school does well, its students are learning what they should.
Site visits were needed previously to make sure schools were doing what they described, O'Brien said. But test scores can simply be verified with the state.
So no one visited Wrightstown to talk about the Blue Ribbon until Wednesday, when the federal education official came to announce the news that the school won.
Michele Szarko - whose daughter Taylor is in fifth grade at Wrightstown and son Joey in third - said test scores are important but are getting too much attention. Students learn a lot more than what they are tested about, she said.
Although he is excited about the award, Wrightstown's principal said he associates it not only with the test scores, but with the teachers who spend extra time with students who need it, the parents who volunteer, and with all the other things that were not discussed in detail in his school's application.
"It all has to be there whether they ask to see it or not," King said.
Contact staff writer Kellie Patrick at 215-702-7807 or email@example.com. Inquirer staff writers Susan Snyder and Melanie Burney contributed to this article.
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