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1,200 Schools in State Could Face Federal Penalties

More than 1,200 California public schools despite steadily improved test scores over the last two years face the threat of federal sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law, a Times computer analysis showed.

Under the federal law, schools get no credit for improving their test scores unless they meet strict annual targets. And this year, for the first time, the bar is rising for all schools in California by nearly 11 percentage points a huge leap for any campus.

Based on their current test scores, the 1,200-plus schools about 13% of the state's 9,000 public campuses are likely to be labeled failures by the end of this year. And based on the last two years of scores, a total of 3,500
would probably fail by 2008, the analysis showed.

The sanctions that many of these campuses may face this year are serious: Principals and teachers could be replaced or outside managers could be brought in to run a failing school.

"We're being punished because we can't make it over the high pole-vault bar," said Principal Kathy Kinley of De Anza Middle School, an Ontario campus whose rising test scores based on the last two years' improvement rate will not meet expectations this year. "We know we're not perfect. But we know we're improving."

The pressures created by No Child Left Behind are weighing on schools nationwide as they struggle to meet the demands of the 2-year-old law, which requires all campuses to have 100% of their students proficient in English and math by 2013-14.

President Bush has promoted the law as one of his signature domestic priorities one that challenges the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

But many teachers and administrators say the law puts too much emphasis on test scores. They, along with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry, say the Bush administration has not given schools enough money to get the job done, an accusation federal officials deny.

No Child Left Behind amended the existing federal education law that also required schools to meet annual targets.

The new measure sought to improve schools by requiring annual English and math tests, but left it up to the states to determine the annual improvement targets. Schools receiving federal funding for serving poor children would face sanctions if they did not improve.

California, which had adopted some of the U.S.' toughest proficiency standards before No Child Left Behind was enacted, resisted pressure to lower those rules, as some states did. But it tried to cushion campuses from the new testing pressures.

The state required schools to show the least amount of improvement under the law in the first six years to avoid thousands of campuses failing. State officials created that system hoping that Congress would revise the law when No Child Left Behind was reauthorized in 2008.

Under the state's system, elementary and middle schools had to show only that 13.6% of students were proficient in English and 16% in math over the program's first three years. The goals rise this school year to 24.4% in English and 26.5% in math, and stay there three years.

Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction, said California's strategy was meant to "let schools know what the expectations are as humanely as possible."

But even with the lowered expectations, thousands of schools would still face trouble. A recent state report found that 67% of California's public schools would fail to meet their targets next spring. It said 76% would
fall short by 2008 and 99% would miss the mark by 2013-14.

The report included groups of students within schools that contribute to lower test scores, such as limited-English speakers and pupils in special education classes. Those data were not available for the Times analysis.

Today the state Education Department will release a list of about 500 schools that have failed to meet the federal targets two years in a row. They come in addition to 1,200 schools already targeted for falling short
of goals.

All those schools must use some of their federal funds to offer students transfers to higher-performing campuses or provide after-school tutoring. If they still faltered, the federal sanctions, such as dismissal of
principals, would kick in.

That could happen as early as next spring in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has identified 72 campuses that have repeatedly failed to meet test targets. Supt. Roy Romer said he would evaluate each school to determine the appropriate action and make recommendations early in 2005.

Those schools showing progress may get more teacher training or other assistance with curriculum. But others could lose principals and other personnel, or be converted into smaller schools, Romer said.

"There are places in this district & where the failure has been of such a continuing nature that it needs a new revitalization to make it work, and we're going to look at that," Romer said. "When we find one that isn't working, we've got to change, even if it means closing it down and reconstituting it. We mean business."

Worried about massive failures, state schools chief O'Connell has lobbied the Bush administration to change the rules. He wants campuses judged by their test-score growth rather than their ability to meet the targets each year. Superintendents from nearly 20 other states have joined the cause.

But the law has enough flexibility, say U.S. Department of Education officials, adding that, among other things, they have relaxed rules for schools that have many English-learners.

No Child Left Behind, they say, has focused new attention on the neediest students and helped close the achievement gap between whites and Asians on the one hand and Latinos and African Americans on the other. The officials say they expect a growing number of campuses nationwide to meet their testing targets this year and beyond.

"We have to be careful not to amend the law for every little part that somebody wants to be excused for," said Assistant Education Secretary Ray Simon. "The last thing we want to do is wake up in 2014 and find out there
are a lot of kids who are not proficient because we have allowed that to happen. Now is not the time to back off, when we see it working."

But at King Middle School in Silver Lake, administrators and teachers are skeptical. King's English and math test scores have been rising the last two years, much to the delight of staff at the campus of 3,000 pupils, most
of them poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches.

The school's math scores, however, are not improving fast enough to satisfy No Child Left Behind. King, one of the 72 schools identified by L.A. Unified as needing extra attention, will miss the state targets this year and in 2008 in math based on its current rate of improvement, the Times analysis found.

"We have too much to do for our children to worry about what's going to happen next," said Principal Charlene Hirotsu, who took over in July. "We're working as hard as we can to make every increase. I really believe that our students can achieve. We're just up against really difficult" targets.

Frustration at King has also mounted because the school has far surpassed separate goals set by California's own accountability system: the Academic Performance Index. Teachers wonder how they can show so much progress by
that account but fail under No Child Left Behind.

Principal Mary Harris of Graham Elementary in South Los Angeles frets about the same thing. Graham made huge gains last year in its API numbers and progressed toward its No Child Left Behind targets.

But it didn't do well enough in the eyes of the federal law.

Harris has pored over studies about ways to boost student performance. She has analyzed school data and offered tutoring programs. She has even prayed.

"Every day I say to myself, 'How & are we going to do this?' If it wasn't so sad, it would be funny. It's like an idiot made this [system] up."

As Harris spoke, she pounded both hands on her desk in exasperation and sat silent, shaking her head for a few seconds.

"Somebody has to stand up and say, 'How in the world is this supposed to work? All of it's not bad, but it's not realistic, it's not attainable.' There are no baby steps. You're supposed to leap off and do it."

Some educators who monitor school achievement say No Child Left Behind serves a key purpose pressuring schools to rethink practices and attitudes about student achievement.

"No Child Left Behind forces people to confront the disturbing reality of where we are right now," said Ross Wiener of the Education Trust in Washington. "Helping schools improve is very hard work. It demands very serious reflection on what we've done in the past that has not worked out" to pupils' benefit.

Edna Velado, principal of Remington Elementary School in Santa Ana, says she believes her students will meet the challenge. Remington has seen its test scores rise over the last two years, but the school still has a long
way to go. At its current rate of improvement, it will miss its targets in English and math this year, the Times analysis found.

To reach the state targets, Velado said, five to seven more students in each class must reach higher levels in math and English. Students who were on the cusp of proficiency last year are now receiving additional
instruction. "This is the law of the land at this time," Velado said, "and we have to live under the constraints it brings."

Times staff writers Erika Hayasaki and Joel Rubin, and data analyst Sandra Poindexter, contributed to this report

— Duke Helfand and Doug Smith
Los Angeles Times
2004-10-13


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