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Educators Call New Standards Unrealistic

Ohanian Comment: Read far down into the article and you find that Palm Beach County is spending $1.48 million this year to bus students under the federal plan and expects to spend $2.4 million to private tutoring groups. Maybe the public can't understand the arguments surrounding what constitutes failure according to the federal edicts, but surely they can understand cold cash.

Florida has the worst record in the nation when it comes to the federal No Child Left Behind Act just 23 percent of schools met academic standards.

While the reason for the high failure rate is the arduous benchmarks Florida set for itself, the repercussions of not meeting those standards are the same across the country and about to get worse for the Sunshine State.

For the first time in three years, Florida's standards to meet No Child Left Behind are rising.

With 77 percent of the state's schools already unsuccessful in meeting last year's benchmarks, officials warn of across-the-board failures as schools struggle to regain ground from the hurricanes and reach the higher academic levels.

Each state sets its own guidelines to meet the federal plan, and they can be amended each year.

More failures under the federal plan mean higher busing costs for districts whose students choose to leave schools labeled as not making "adequate yearly progress" although those same schools may have an A grade under Gov. Jeb Bush's education reform plan.

It means more federal dollars going from public schools to private or religious-based tutoring companies that may not have any experience with the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

And it means stage four of federal consequences will kick in at some schools replacement of staff, loss of decision-making ability at the school level, a longer school day or school year, or hiring an outside expert to advise the school.

Educators watching No Child Left Behind results come in from other states wonder whether Florida shot itself in the foot by setting benchmarks out of reach for the majority of it schools. With 37 of 50 states and the District of Columbia reporting, Florida tied only with Alabama for the highest percentage of schools not meeting standards under the law.

In Louisiana, 95 percent of schools made adequate yearly progress last year. Eighty percent of Michigan schools met standards. Idaho, 82 percent. Pennsylvania, 81 percent. Tennessee, 94 percent.

"We are concerned about the inflexible criteria of No Child Left Behind in Florida," David Mosrie, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said about the state's plan.

Palm Beach County Superintendent Art Johnson put it more bluntly:

"I can't jump that high."

Florida's superintendents are begging Education Commissioner John Winn to rethink the state's No Child Left Behind plan.

The superintendents want Winn to keep last year's standards, which required 31 percent of students to be reading on grade level and 38 percent to perform math on grade level.

Those numbers may seem low, but they must be met by each of eight subgroups of students based on race, limited English proficiency and disability.

Some schools, such as Barton Elementary in Lake Worth, failed under the federal law because just one category of students missed the standards. In Barton's case, its disabled students could not reach the reading benchmark.

But the law doesn't care about how close schools come to passing, or whether their testing benchmarks are high or low. The law only cares about whether the school passes or not, and Barton a B-graded school must now offer its students school choice, meaning they can go to another school with the district footing the bill for transportation.

Statewide, 963 schools are offering school choice to students because they did not meet No Child Left Behind standards for the second consecutive year.

This school year, Florida's standards will require 48 percent of students to read on grade level and 53 percent to do math on grade level. Compare that with California, which last year required 12 percent of students to be reading proficiently and 12.8 percent to do math on grade level.

Also, and more complicated, is the number of students required in each subgroup for the scores to count. The lower the subgroup numbers, which again are set by each state itself, the more likely it is those scores will be counted.

In Florida, it takes 30 students in a subgroup for scores to count. In California, scores aren't counted unless there are 100 students in a subgroup, or 50 students if they make up 15 percent or more of that school's population.

Bottom line: It's less likely that scores from minorities, disabled students and non-English speakers will count in California, which had 65 percent of schools passing No Child Left Behind last year, compared with Florida's 23 percent.

Winn, who has been hesitant to make changes he believes lower Florida's academic standards, announced last week he would allow schools to appeal their state school grades if they feel the hurricanes negatively affected student FCAT scores.

He did not acquiesce to superintendent requests to change the No Child Left Behind benchmarks.

"We have two nonnegotiable items the level of proficiency and the cell size of 30 students," Winn said.

But he's not totally inflexible, saying he is looking at other possibilities and that the superintendents have some "excellent" ideas.

Jim Warford, Florida education chancellor for kindergarten through grade 12, said he's not concerned about the higher standards Florida chose for itself, even if it means suffering the consequences in higher proportions than other states.

"We made the right choice," Warford said. "We negotiated this plan early on, and other states decided to lower their standards. We set our standards high, and our students are the ones benefiting."

He downplayed the fatalism expressed by superintendents who foresee higher busing costs and more federal dollars going to private tutoring companies if the benchmarks are raised as planned.

Palm Beach County is already spending $1.48 million this year to bus students under the federal plan money that could hire 25 additional teachers. Another $2.4 million is expected to go to private tutoring groups.

"Contrary to what the critics say, there was no massive disruption of schools this year and no massive transfer of students," Warford said.

If the superintendents get their way and the benchmarks are changed, the new plan will have to be approved by the federal Department of Education a hurdle the superintendents association's Mosrie said Florida should easily clear.

"I think the federal government would realize that four catastrophic hurricanes may justify a change," he said.

— Kimberly Miller
Palm Beach Post


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