Educators Call Federal Criticism Misleading
Ohanian Comment: Children with special needs--whether they are cognitive, developmental, language . . . whatever, are already considered an other in many schools. What will happen to them now that they are perceived as bringing down a school's reputation in the community? What happens when they are perceived as bringing down real estate values?
Many suburban schools -- including several that rank among the state's best in standardized test scores -- are falling short of English and math standards mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The "in need of improvement" designation, given to more than a third of the state's school districts and announced Wednesday, frustrates suburban educators who worry that the label will overshadow their schools' overall records. Many criticize the federal expectations as arbitrary and unrealistic, and said the federal report card is a simplistic measure that paints a misleading picture of education quality.
The No Child Left Behind Act mandates that states issue a yearly report card evaluating student performance in every school and district. The annual report evaluates MCAS scores of the overall student population and breaks them down into 16 subgroups. It also calculates test participation, attendance, and graduation rates to determine whether schools are making "adequate yearly progress" as defined by the law.
Schools and districts that fall short of expectations -- overall or in any subgroup -- in either subject for two years running are formally designated as "in need of improvement" and must take action to improve education quality. Schools in need of improvement must notify parents and offer them the option of sending their children to another school within the district that made yearly progress.
A dozen districts as a whole in the Globe West coverage area made the federal watch list for not making what the law defines as "adequate yearly progress" in math and English. In addition, a dozen schools are now on the list.
Among the districts found lacking were four that last year ranked among the state's top 36 schools in overall MCAS performance: Weston, Medway, Shrewsbury, and Franklin. All four fell short of the federal benchmark in either math or English.
For the first time, a district could land on the federal watch list if just a single category of students fell below federal standards. Educators attributed the ballooning list to that new provision, which isolated the performance of groups including Hispanics, blacks, special education students, and low-income students.
Stacy Middle School in Milford, faulted for math performance, was the only area school where scores taken as a whole fell short of federal standards. All other schools made the list because a particular group of students did not match their peers' success in either math or English.
Most fell short in math, primarily in the category of special-needs students. Maynard, Milford, and Watertown fell short in both subjects.
After learning of the results, released publicly by the state Department of Education Wednesday, educators tried to make sense of a yearly yardstick that finds well-regarded districts lacking.
"Just a week ago, we [Massachusetts] were announcing we had the best SAT scores in the country," said Sheldon Berman, superintendent of schools in Hudson, which was identified as needing improvement in math. "You can't then turn around and say, 'All those schools are failing.' "
In Framingham, an elementary school honored in July for academic achievement by the state education department was placed on the list because of English scores for low-income and Hispanic students.
"One day we're celebrating success; the next day we're having a finger pointed at us," said Superintendent Christopher Martes.
Many educators worry that the public will perceive the label as a broad criticism of education quality, rather than shedding light on a specific weakness.
"I worry about the public perception this could cause," said John Brackett, superintendent in Sudbury, a district that as a whole had nearly a perfect score on the federal scale but failed to meet standards in math for special-education students. "I don't want our achievements to get lost."
Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said that requiring schools to pass every category punishes larger districts, which have more low-income and minority students.
"The larger and more diverse a district you are, the more likely you are to fail," he said.
Daniel Mayer, a school administrator in Maynard, where special education and low-income students fell short of federal standards, criticized the watch list as a punitive scare tactic.
"To me, it's sort of like the terrorist alerts that the federal government puts out and says, 'Everybody watch out, there's terrorists out there," he said. "No Child Left Behind is trying to motivate people from fear rather than well-thought-out initiatives."
Educators said they would redouble efforts to teach struggling students, often special-needs, bilingual, and minority children, by working with them individually or in small groups. State education officials praised the law for holding schools responsible for teaching all children, noting that many schools that made the list last year raised performance enough to clear the federal threshold.
"The system is working as it should," said Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll.
Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who has studied how states comply with the federal law, said bringing shortcomings to light is likely to spur progress.
"The real question is, is it better to know or not to know" how groups of students are doing, he said. "I think there is a growing public awareness it's better to know."
The state education department will release complete district results early next month.
Globe correspondent Matt Viser contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.
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