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NCLB Outrages

State Tests Show Poverty Hurting Kids' Performance

Ohanian Comment: The Vermont papers are full of news about who's failing and who's not. Note that the Commissioner of Education tries to stay low key about this. Also note the good news: Many Vermont schools are too small to be counted by NCLB.

MONTPELIER Now that numbers have been crunched and Vermont's schools have all been graded for compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind law, school officials around the state are cringing at the thought that an "f-word" failing could be associated with their schools.

Education Commissioner Richard Cate announced Tuesday that a total of 39 schools, including Barre's centralized elementary school, and 49 school districts, including the one in Montpelier, fell short of their "adequate yearly progress" targets this year.

The good news, according to Cate, is that most Vermont's schools don't have to worry because the schools are so small that statistical analysis doesn't work.

In making the announcement, Cate sought to take some of the sting out of being "identified" as falling short of benchmarks established by the state in an effort to shore up the shortcomings of Vermont's public school system.

"Identification doesn't mean that terrible things are going to happen," Cate said. "I don't think we should care quite as much about numbers as we should about the needs of kids. All I really care about is that all the kids are served."

Based on the latest two-year average of standardized tests administered to all Vermont fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders, as well as the developmental reading assessment conducted in the second grade, Cate said poverty remains a major obstacle to student achievement.

"Again, for the majority of schools, the problem is that children that come from poorer families are not achieving as well on the test," he said, noting that several schools that missed their progress targets were identified solely due to the performance of students who are economically eligible for federally subsidized meals.

Of the 39 schools identified this year, more than half 21 had a statistically significant problem with students who are eligible for free or reduced lunches. For 18 of those schools that was the only underperforming segment of their student populations. Barre City Elementary and Middle School was one of them.

Barre is one of 22 schools that failed to meet the adequate yearly progress goals for a second straight year. Those schools are now identified as "needing improvement," a status that means students are allowed to attend other schools within the district, if such alternatives exist.

St. Johnsbury is also on the list, as is Harwood Union High School in Duxbury. U-32 was not listed.

Like Barre, St. Johnsbury was identified as failing based on how students eligible for free or reduced lunches performed on language arts and mathematics exams. At Harwood, it was the performance of a subgroup of students with disabilities that caused the school to be identified for a second straight year. Those students did not meet the standard in either language arts or mathematics.

Although none of Montpelier's three schools was identified individually, the school district itself was identified for the second year based on the collective performance of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunches. The law says schools must have at least 80 students in a subgroup to measure their performance, and though there aren't 80 students eligible for subsidized meals in any one of Montpelier's three schools, Superintendent John Everitt acknowledged that is simply a function of the structure of the school system.

"As we look at the numbers, we have work to do at all three of our schools," said Everitt, who noted that work most notably curriculum development has been ongoing.

Montpelier was one of nine school districts identified for improvement after failing to demonstrate adequate yearly progress for the second straight year.

For the second straight year, Barre's most economically disadvantaged students, when scored as a subgroup, did not make the grade in either language arts or mathematics. That group brought down the broader category of "all students," which narrowly exceeded the standard in language arts this year.

That came as something of a surprise to Schools Superintendent Dorothy Anderson, who was told more than a week ago, that "all students," in addition to the free-and-reduced lunch subgroup, had failed to make the grade in Barre.

Based on that report, Anderson, and Curriculum Coordinator John Tapper and School Commissioner Marcia Biondolillo launched a preemptive strike on Tuesday in an attempt to downplay the results they argued were the product of a flawed federal law.

"It's like they got to a great place and then lost their minds," Tapper said of the architects of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Tapper said the law sets standards that cannot be met, while diverting attention from the strides schools are making to serve students.

"Everyone knows it's impossible," he said.

Biondolillo said Barre faces a number of unique challenges, including a high poverty rate, an unusually high percentage of foreign-born students for whom English is a second language, and an extremely transient population.

"It's like the perfect storm," she said, noting that only 30 percent of students who start out in kindergarten in Barre are still in the city-run school by the time they reach eighth grade.

"It's a problem, and we take it very seriously," she said.

Later in the day Tapper welcomed news that initial reports about the test results in Barre had been mistaken, and that "all students" narrowly met the goal instead of just missing it. However, he said he remains concerned that the thrust of the No Child Left Behind Act does not bode well for Barre.

"The goals are just not realistic for a population like ours," he said.

Cate defended the tests as a valuable tool for assessing student achievement and school performance.

"We must focus on the Adequate Yearly Progress data to help us better understand how to assist schools in improving student learning," he said, downplaying the sanctions that include the potential loss of federal funding and possible school closings.

Although Cate said no Vermont schools are in danger of being closed, he will have to recommend changes at two that performed poorly on tests for a fourth year. After three years of unsuccessful attempts to achieve AYP goals, Mount Anthony Union High School and Mount Anthony Union Middle School in Bennington both must implement corrective actions recommended by Cate.

According to Cate, some schools failed to meet the standard for the first time this year and face no immediate action. That list includes Roxbury Village School, Lamoille Union High School and Lamoille Union Middle School in Hyde Park.

Meanwhile, Bellows Falls Middle School and Eden School, which had performed poorly on the tests in the past, met the standard for the second straight year and have been removed from the state list of schools needing improvement.

Students at Hazen Union High School in Hardwick met the standard this year and that school could be removed from corrective action next year if students do well on the next round of tests, which are expected to be administered in February 2006. The same is true of Leicester Central School and Troy School, which met the standard this year after one year of school improvement.

Students at Missisquoi Valley Union High School performed poorly on the tests for a third straight year and the school is now just one testing round away from mandated sanctions.

— David Delcore
Times Argus


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