More Students, More Chances To Fail
Large school districts say their diversity is their strength, but it became the Achilles heel of some local schools Thursday when federal No Child Left Behind rankings were issued.
Seven of the region's 10 biggest school districts -- representing 46 percent of West Michigan's students -- failed to meet federal guidelines in math and English tests.
While some educators call the rankings "an absolute atrocity," some student advocates say the 2002 law forces schools to pay closer attention to groups that historically have been written off.
Districts are required to meet goals on standardized tests -- called "Adequate Yearly Progress." They are judged by the performance of student subgroups, which are based on ethnicity, language skills, economics and whether they are in special education programs.
While the system is intended to hold districts accountable for the education of all students, leaders of large and diverse districts say the odds are stacked against them because they will have more subgroups -- giving them more chances to fail.
Superintendents said forcing special education students to take tests designed for mainstream students is particularly unfair. Of the nine area districts that missed the AYP mark, eight were tagged partially because of scores from special education students.
"There is something inherently wrong when an entire school system is measured by the performance of a particular group of students," Greenville Superintendent Terance Lunger said. "A fraction of our students impact an overall evaluation of our program."
Not only is Grand Rapids by far the biggest and most diverse district, but it operates many of Kent County's special education centers. That makes it more vulnerable than the second-largest district, Forest Hills, which has few special education students and fewer minorities or poor students.
"This is an artificial score, and I don't think it accurately judges a school system at all," Grand Rapids Superintendent Bert Bleke said. "No urban system is going to do well with No Child Left Behind. It's a joke."
Districts may exempt up to 1 percent of students from the tests, but area educators say that's not enough. Kentwood Superintendent Mary Leiker said it's unfair to test to students just learning English or who are in most special education programs.
"These are children we set up with individualized educational programs because they have special needs," she said. "Now, is it fair to tell them they have special needs on every day except testing day? If a child is autistic, God bless them. But they're still autistic on test day."
"We're giving the special education kids the same tests we're giving the kids who want to be our valedictorian, and we expect them to do as well?" Wyoming Superintendent Jon Felske said. "Of course we want them to do well. But is that realistic?"
But advocates for special education students say that's exactly the kind of thinking No Child Left Behind is intended to stamp out.
"Special education students can do well if a district makes sure the proper instruction and supports are in place," said Richard J. Robinson, executive director of the Boston-based Federation for Children with Special Needs.
"Too often, schools label students as 'special education' and steer them into a track of low-level courses with low expectations. No Child has forced them to shed light on students who have historically been put in the background."
Economics also played a factor in a district's rankings. Six of the nine failing districts fell short at least partially because of students in the economically disadvantaged subgroup. It was the sole reason Belding failed.
The landmark education reform was proposed by President Bush based on a similar system created in Texas. It was approved with bipartisan support, although Democrats backed away last year, saying the federal government did not give schools enough financial help to meet the goals.
While individual schools have faced sanctions for not meeting Annual Yearly Progress, districtwide rankings were released for the first time Thursday. The nine area districts earning the black marks are among 109 in Michigan that failed to meet federal guidelines, the Michigan Department of Education reported.
The failing districts receive nothing more than a public relations black eye this year. But schools must draft improvement plans and beef up teacher training if they don't reach the goal two years in a row.
Press reporters Kym Reinstadler and Jennifer Ackerman-Haywood contributed to this report.
Rhe Grand Rapids Press
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES