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Marlboro Stands Firm

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MARLBORO -- The No Child Left Behind law isn't perfect, but it's more flexible than some school officials think, Vermont Education Commissioner Richard Cate told the Marlboro School Board on Monday.
And, whatever he may think, it's his job to implement the law.

Cate visited Marlboro Elementary School to talk to officials about the School Board's decision to not abide by some of No Child Left Behind's provisions. His goal was to clarify some issues and listen to the Board.

It doesn't look like the School Board was swayed, Chairman Daniel MacArthur said after the meeting, but he appreciated Cate's appearance and his ability to boil down a complex law. The Board will probably discuss it at their next regular meeting next month.

"My guess is that the Marlboro Board isn't changing its decision at this point," MacArthur said.

In the end, Cate said, the issue is worth a continuing dialogue, but not a rumble. And while he does not agree with everything in the law, he thinks it's better to work with it for now and make improvements as time goes by.

He assured officials, school staff and residents that the law would be fine-tuned after November, no matter who's president.

"I didn't vote for this thing," he said. "I just have to implement it."

The issue is big enough in this little college town to attract dozens of residents, who generally seemed to agree with the Board. MacArthur said that he has encountered only a few townspeople who disagree with the Board's stance.

The talk -- officially a School Board meeting -- came more than four months after the Board announced it would not administer any standardized tests the principal deems void of educational value, participate in the Adequate Yearly Progress portion of the law nor forward information that's connectable to a student's name.

Marlboro Elementary School is the first in the state to take such a stance.

The Board's reasoning is that they believe the law is flawed and does not benefit the small school's children. Moreover, standardized tests cannot accurately gauge such a small school's education and is too reliant on exams.

And some students simply aren't good at tests.

Resident Jonathan Morse, who had three children attend the school, said his children did not test well, but excelled in other areas. They all finished college, where they did very well, and are described by their father as "brilliant."

At a school with a student body of about 70, learning is individual, Board member Lauren Poster said. In this environment, teachers are the ones who know who needs extra attention and what the problems are, she added.

"You're right," Cate responded. "The teacher knows each individual student. They know what the needs are."

For Marlboro's needs, Poster said, portfolios -- the method formerly used by Vermont's schools to gauge educational progress -- work better for small towns. She also said the school is so small that test results will not be accurate. Cate later said if one or more special needs children are in one class and make the score sink, the state would take that into account.

Board member Andy Reichsman said teachers should not have to alter their curriculum just to test better. Cate countered suggestions that the school may have to cut back on arts and local history education by saying -- though the subjects are not represented in standardized tests -- such cuts are not in the state's interest.

He wants curriculum to be broadened, he said, not hindered. But at the same time, portfolio assessments do not meet his needs, because they are not comparable.

Signed into law by President Bush in January 2002, No Child Left Behind has been criticized for being reliant on exams and for inadequate funding.

The law requires public schools to improve each year and replace teachers deemed unqualified, among other things. Cate said if Marlboro does not participate in Adequate Yearly Progress, he will be forced to say the school has made no progress, eventually landing itself on the "need of improvement" list.

Marlboro Elementary does not face any sanctions until they refuse to administer a test, the first of which is scheduled for October 2005.

"This is not about gotcha," Cate said of the exams. "This is not [a] desire to try to penalize everyone."

The state, which is required by the federal government to evaluate the schools, plans to do pilot tests this fall, but it is unclear what happens if Marlboro doesn't partake.

Asked the consequence, Cate said: "We'll probably have another conversation."

Schools that do not meet achievement standards, which are mostly based on standardized test scores, risk losing Title I funding, the money provided by the federal government to schools that meet established poverty guidelines. Marlboro does not receive any such funds.

Also at potential risk is Principal Francie Marbury's job. MacArthur commended her for putting her career in jeopardy by backing the Board's position.

There's more to the law than just evaluating a single school, Cate said. The data is used to evaluate and help all schools in Vermont, which is why schools are needed to participate.

And some of the federal law simply does not apply to Marlboro: Parents cannot opt to enroll their children elsewhere, because there are no other school districts. Some of the law's wording was designed for urban school districts, Cate said, and Vermont has not been given concrete directives about it.

"We have to stick to our Vermont vision," he said.

School officials also said they were concerned with the amount of time the annual testing would consume. But Cate said the school would spend less time on it than the standardized test previously used, though not every year.

— Mike Kalil
Brattleboro Reformer


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