Scores Improve But Educators Wary of Law
Students are taking their fall Idaho Achievement Standards Tests in math, reading and language, and there is a great deal riding on the outcome.
The scores will drive the instruction required to achieve 72 percent proficiency in reading and 60 percent in math by spring, according to federal law.
In ten years 100 percent of students tested are required to be proficient in skills for their grades, according to the No Child Left Behind Act. That includes students with disabilities and others that have barriers to learning.
Meanwhile, schools that don't improve according to federal benchmarks will be penalized.
"There is nothing wrong with accountability," Lakeside Elementary Principal Joe St. John said. "But the act has some flaws."
For one thing, it's unrealistic, critics say.
"One hundred percent is not attainable," St. Maries High School Principal John Cordell said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that."
Kootenai High School Principal Rich Lund agrees.
In theory it's wonderful, but all students can't be expected to progress at the same rate, he said.
"If we put 100 people on a track some will run it in 10 seconds, others it will take 20. Does it mean they haven’t succeeded? We’re trying to put everybody in the same boat," he said. "It doesn’t mean the person who took 30 seconds is not capable of being a successful citizen.”
Schools that fail to demonstrate "Adequate Yearly Progress," measured by climbing test scores, are placed on a list that can result in sanctions.
Lynn Ferguson, the Principal at Kootenai Elementary, where scores outpace the state average, welcomes the challenge.
"The biggest thing about ISAT, it is giving us ways to look at curriculum and evaluate strengths and weaknesses," she said. "It’s a good tool for evaluation."
The law, which went into effect in 2002, has administrators scrambling to avoid sanctions.
Penalties kick in when schools remain on the needs improvement list more than one year. They must give students the option to transfer to another school at the district's expense.
After a second year on the list, they must pay for students to be tutored outside of school.
Being listed for several years results in drastic changes. Schools can be dissolved, turned into charter schools, or privatized.
"AYP really boils down to 'All Your Possessions,'" Plummer/Worley Superintendent Wayne Trottier said. "Because what they basically say is, they'll come in and shut your school down."
His district has added after school programs in reading and math and new training for teachers.
"It raises the bar each year to promote the concept of pushing for higher expectations," he said. "It certainly will require schools and staff to stay well grounded."
The law seems to be working, based on better test scores since 2002, but it has drawbacks, administrators say.
Mr. Lund takes issue with its one size-fits-all approach.
“It’s a train wreck waiting to happen,” he said. "I think the world in Harrison, St. Maries and Plummer is totally different than inner-city Chicago or Washington, D.C. We’re being dictated to in rural northern Idaho by people that have no clue."
For example, offering students the option of moving to a different school in the district doesn't work in rural areas, which generally don't have a selection, he said.
"I don’t think they’ve thought it out," Mr. Lund said.
Some take issue with its cookie cutter approach to test results.
In very small districts, such as Kootenai, one student's scores can tip the scales.
“Every class you look at is going to be different, Mrs. Ferguson said. "With a school this size, every student that moves in or out is going to skew those scores."
The tests track performance for the entire district, its schools and various groups, such as; Native American, African-American, Hispanic, migrant, low-income and special education. The law's intent is to provide extra help for students that need it, but if one of those groups doesn't make the grade the whole school is branded as failing.
Test results for groups of fewer than 10 are not recorded, for reasons of privacy.
In most cases, the number of special needs
students in St. Maries and Kootenai districts is too small for their scores to count, but that can change with the addition of one or two people, Mr. Cordell said.
He is concerned the pressure of sanctions might tempt teachers in small districts to keep students out of special education programs.
"The threat is on losing the funding if you don't meet AYP for all subjects for all subgroups," Mr. Cordell said. "Even if you improve on one and drop in another, you're still in trouble."
Schools in St. Maries, Kootenai and Plummer/Worley districts all failed to make adequate yearly progress for at least one year since testing began in fall 2002. St. Maries is currently in that category for students with disabilities.
All but Plummer/Worley's high school and middle schools managed to improve test results enough to avoid the needs improvement list.
Plummer/Worley's scores have risen steadily, but not enough to meet the benchmarks.
"This district has been to a place it's never been before," Superintendent Wayne Trottier said.
His district, which started with lower scores, has different demographics than neighboring schools.
"There is no district in the state that has the challenges we have because of the plethora of subgroups."
The law has administrators and staff at all area schools scrambling to improve curriculums and teaching, but factors beyond their control play a role in student achievement, they say.
"A lot of it has to do with how involved parents are in a child’s education," Ms. Ferguson said.
"It’s a community effort. The more they're involved the better the children do."
Family involvement tends to be linked to income, ethnicity, and other characteristics, which means the law favors students from mainstream backgrounds, Dr. Trottier said.
"It boils down to a clash of value systems when we start talking about poverty," he said. "This is really a middle-class, upper-middle-class status approach to educational accountability...and the pressure is on us."
Schools like his need more help, he told legislators at the Indian affairs council last month.
"I want to know from a technical standpoint where the state Department of Education is going to provide us the technical assistance to improve the challenges we have here," Dr. Trottier said. "It's just not there."
About 20 bills aimed at reforming the law have been submitted to Congress. Some changes made since its passage in 2002 provide more flexibility in assessing progress. One new provision, called safe harbor, saved Lakeside Elementary from the needs improvement list this year, because it lowered criteria for improvement.
Teachers and administrators hope more reforms will smooth the law's rough edges.
Meanwhile, their careers hinge on how well they can meet its requirements.
"When everything gets said and done it's basically going to be our responsibility to get this thing worked out," Dr. Trottier said. "Pessimism is not an option under NCLB."
The St. Maries Gazette Record
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES