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Schools flail as state seeks alternative to NCLB

Paul Demko//October 5, 2011//

Schools flail as state seeks alternative to NCLB

Paul Demko//October 5, 2011//

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Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius says the No Child Left Behind law is “not a fair, valid or accurate way of measuring how schools are really doing.” (File photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Education officials will request a waiver from federal law; more than half of Minnesota’s schools falling short

All three elementary schools in the Moorhead Area Public Schools system are failing. That’s the diagnosis from state records released last week by the Department of Education in compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Robert Asp Elementary School has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for six straight years toward the goal of having all students proficient in math and reading by 2014. Ellen Hopkins Elementary School has not met that threshold in four of the last five years. And S.G. Reinertsen Elementary School has fallen short on test scores for three straight school years.
In theory, under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), parents would be given the option of sending their children to different elementary schools, and the district would be on the hook for providing transportation. But since none of the schools in the district are deemed proficient, that option hardly makes sense. “There is not a choice for parents,” said Lynne Kovash, the school district’s superintendent.

Instead, at two of the schools — Robert Asp and Ellen Hopkins — outside education organizations have been brought in to provide additional tutoring and other assistance for students. During the current school year roughly $175,000 in federal education funding will be funneled to these outside groups. But Kovash argues that there’s no accountability for such programs.

“I think it’s just a diverting of funds,” she said. “There is no proof that we have that’s it’s making a difference for those students.”

Moorhead schools are hardly unique in failing to meet the standards set up by the NCLB law, initially enacted in 2001. The statewide statistics are grim: 1,056 schools failed to meet testing marks. That’s more than half of the state’s schools for which there was sufficient data to make a judgment. The picture for middle schools was particularly bleak, with two-thirds failing to hit AYP benchmarks. The number of failing schools is only expected to grow as the 2014 deadline for showing proficiency approaches.

Local officials bristle at the suggestion that their schools are widely failing to adequately educate children. Northport Elementary School, part of the Robbinsdale Public School District, has fallen short on math and reading test scores for five straight years. But district Superintendent Aldo Sicoli points out that Northport students met AYP standards in nine of 16 categories in 2010, up from just two of 16 in the previous school year.

“Most people would say, ‘Wow, that’s tremendous progress,’” Sicoli said. “Yet they have to plan for pre-restructuring. … It’s just not a system that makes a lot of sense.”

Increasingly that’s a consensus position. In August Minnesota sought a temporary waiver from certain provisions of NCLB, but the U.S. Department of Education has not acted on the request. Since then, however, federal officials announced that they will grant waivers to some of the more onerous provisions of NCLB, including the 2014 deadline for meeting proficiency standards in math and reading. States have until mid-November to submit waiver applications and are expected to hear back early in 2012 about whether their plans have been accepted. Minnesota Department of Education officials are preparing the state’s application.

In releasing the latest AYP results, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius made it clear that she was doing so begrudgingly in light of waiver discussions. She issued a letter (which schools had the option of sharing with parents) laying out her concerns about the current system for assessing the adequacy of individual schools. In particular, Cassellius took issue with the year-over-year measurements used in AYP assessments.

“In addition to using one test score as the primary determination of a school’s success or failure,” Cassellius wrote, “it also compares the performance of one group of students to the performance of a totally different group of students the following year. This is not a fair, valid or accurate way of measuring how schools are really doing.”

The uncertainty about the future of NCLB leaves school districts in a difficult situation. Some schools are facing significant prescriptive measures under the federal law to remedy inadequate test scores. In Robbinsdale, for instance, two schools are preparing for restructuring after five consecutive years of failing to meet AYP goals. But if a waiver is granted, those changes may no longer be necessary.

“It is what it is,” Sicoli said. “You have to follow the federal law.”

While there are widespread concerns about NCLB, some education policy experts question whether wholesale changes are needed. Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, points out that there are tangible signs that the state has made progress in recent years in closing the achievement gap between white students and their minority counterparts — a primary goal of NCLB.

According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, black eighth-graders in Minnesota lagged 44 points behind white pupils on a standardized math test in 2003. By 2009, that gap had closed to 37 points. For Hispanic students, they trailed their white counterparts by 32 points on a standardized reading test in 2003. Six years later that gap had shrunk by four points.

“Our gap has closed as much or more than it has nationally,” Bartholomew said. “The gaps are closing here. Not quickly enough, but they are closing.”

Bartholomew further points out that until 1997 Minnesota had a law on the books prohibiting statewide testing. He’s worried that the state will slip back to an era when there were few credible comprehensive standards for educational attainment. “It’s not that this has been a horrible thing and the kids have done poorly by it. There have been benefits,” Bartholomew said of NCLB. “I think the expectation needs to always be there that all kids need to succeed.”

Education officials insist that they’re not looking to shirk transparency and accountability for their schools. They’re simply seeking a system that makes sense for schools struggling to meet AYP standards. “It’s not that anyone’s against accountability,” Sicoli said. “It’s just that when we put in a system, it needs to make sense and have valid assessments of what you’re trying to get at.”
Chatfield Public Schools has just two facilities serving roughly 900 students in southeastern Minnesota. In each of the last two years, both the elementary and secondary school have failed to meet AYP benchmarks. But Superintendent Edward Harris chafes at the suggestion that the schools are failing to adequately educate students. “To say that a school is failing is a gross exaggeration,” Harris said. “We have a large number of our kids that are making wonderful growth gains, but the bar keeps being pushed out. To say that the school in general is not doing its job is unfair.”

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