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No Child Left Behind�What the Citizenry needs to know!

 

                                                            Dr. James Fitzpatrick

                                                            Superintendent

 

I have had this column on my mind since October when our school district received news from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction that we had met our ANNUAL YEARLY PROGRESS (AYP) as stipulated in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) now enacted into law. 

 

AYP is the benchmark all schools must meet each year.  The �bar will be incrementally raised� until in 2014, when all children in America will be expected to be proficient in reading and mathematics. 

 

A myth I would like to address in this column is the perception held by many that educators fear accountability. 

 

Schools can define success through a number of ways.  Test scores are one snapshot.  For those who believe that such quantitative assessments are the best indicators of success, there is not much one can say to convince them otherwise.  However, with NCLB and the reporting of AYP, there are some things that citizens really need to understand before they �rush to judgment� about a school or district that is cited for not reaching AYP.

 

I have a sister who lives in a very affluent western suburb of Chicago.  There are 27 schools in the school district her children attend.  The middle school her sons attend is the only school that receives Title funding, which is determined by the number of students in a school receiving free or reduced priced lunch.  This school receives approximately $80,000 per year.  For the second consecutive year, this school failed to reach Annual Yearly Progress.  The sanctions for this call for notifying parents and informing them that their school has failed to make AYP thus parents may choose to send their children to another school in the district.

 

The superintendent sent a letter to each home inviting parents to come in and review the test data.  My sister and her husband attended.  Here is what they learned:

 

  1. In both reading and math, the students in that school had scored at a ninety percent proficiency level.  In fact they had scored higher than two other middle schools in the district. 
  2. In AYP there are �cells� of student groups in which scores are disaggregated.  These cells include students with disabilities, social and economically disadvantaged students, racial and ethnic students, and students with limited English speaking skills.
  3. Like the Fort Atkinson School District, this school district consolidates some of its programs in Special Education and English a Second Language (ESL) because of the high cost of having specialists in all schools.  What my sister learned is that there was a significant Samoan population of students receiving ESL services at the middle school her sons attend.  Her school also served a large number of the cognitively disabled students from other middle school boundaries within the district.
  4. The state (in this case Illinois) determines the percentage of students that must be proficient to meet AYP.  I mentioned that the school as a whole tested in the ninety percent proficiency level for all of its students in both Reading and Math.  However in examining the cells of students with learning disabilities and ESL, both of these student populations fell short of the bar! 

 

In AYP if one cell group does not meet the �bar benchmark� then the entire school as in this case, is sanctioned as a school not meeting annual yearly progress!   

 

To add insult to injury, at this middle school, in both of these cells, for ESL and Children with Disabilities, the scores had increased over the previous school year, yet they fell short of the �bar benchmark� established for AYP.  

 

Imagine how disheartening it is for educators in these two programs and for this middle school staff in general, to be publicly singled out as a school failing to make AYP.  Keep in mind the unique challenges that are presented in this middle school learning community where helping the students reach their potential has been embraced by its educators, and efficiency has been demonstrated by the school district by consolidating services!

 

After the superintendent finished his presentation he fielded questions and comments.  One mother asked why her 7th grader was in a class with a Samoan boy who could not even read at the first grade level.  Why wasn�t this Samoan boy being taught in a primary school?  My sister�s impulsive response was �do you actually think this poor Samoan boy ought to be placed in a classroom with first graders?� 

 

A father then asked the superintendent, �Why with over a $200,000,000 dollar budget should we even worry about $80,000 of Federal title money.  Is it worth the humiliation of being cited as a failing school?� 

 

Maybe this is the solution that wealthy districts will arrive at.  Buy your way out of bad publicity from AYP by refusing Title funds!  The superintendent to his credit confronted this logic noting that in this middle school that $80,000 is put to great use in providing aides, tutors, and resources to help provide more personal attention in meeting the needs of students in this school.  Besides, what would taxpaying citizens think of a school district that did not do everything in its power to minimize the burden of local property taxes?  Darn good answer.

 

In a comprehensive school with students of diverse learning abilities, you never want to get into the �blame game.�  Public education has never been about that.  The encouraging note from this meeting is that the majority of the parents left the meeting assured that their middle school was indeed a high performing, outstanding school with a very caring staff.  Few, if any, will invoke their right to transfer their children to one of the other three middle schools.

 

In Wisconsin, there were 30 school districts and 108 schools that were cited for not making AYP.  The general feeling is that given the established benchmarks and the incremental increases that will be steadily implemented, all school districts, especially those with unique clusters of students, will eventually suffer a similar fate. 

 

All schools in Fort met AYP this year.  As a district our proficiency level in reading was at 88%, well over the 61% bar established by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.  However, in reading our students with disabilities came dangerously close to not making AYP, despite making continual improvement from the previous year!

 

Perhaps the above explains why educators are very frustrated with this national education agenda that appears to simplify accountability to a one size fits all model.

 

My intent is not to be overly critical of NCLB, however the citizenry really needs to understand what is going on!  Like many educators I believe there are some good features of this legislation, but I would suggest the following: 

 

  1. Like the mandated annual district report card, each school district should report as a part of their annual meetings in July, or at a mandated time, the progress made in their schools and districts in accordance with AYP criteria. 
  2. The disaggregated reporting on the progress of clusters or cells of students should be public record.  All of our students should make progress.  In my opinion the breaking out of this data is indeed one of the best features of AYP.  The citizens of a community should receive a disaggregated report on these student clusters at the annual meeting.  It is the misleading manipulations of this data that indict entire schools or districts that I find disturbing. 
  3. The public humiliation and unfair sanctions that AYP is unduly causing for school districts across our country must cease.  The US Department of Education needs to work with the legislature and fix AYP so that proper adjustments are made to account for the individual uniqueness of clusters of students within our schools, i.e. English Second Language students, students with disabilities, and socially and economically challenged students.  At present, NCLB punishes the schools and districts who often champion these clusters of students, when in fact they ought to be praised for their efforts.
  4. Beginning next year, in addition to the testing now in place at 4th, 8th, and 10th grade, additional standardized testing will be implemented at 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 9th grade. 

 

When is enough standardized testing enough?  

 

Presently students spend over seven hours in fourth and eight grade and over five hours in tenth grade taking these exams.  I might add these exams can be logistically very difficult to administer unlike an ACT exam that can be given on a Saturday to students highly motivated to do well.  My recommendation is that our current testing is sufficient. The legislature should address and change the law calling for additional exams at every grade level as enacted by the federal government through NCLB legislation.

 

Every kid does deserve a great school.  Where there are bad schools, they do need to be shut down or improved.  But let us not forget that poverty and societal challenges that impact schools are not just simply remedied by releasing standardized test scores to the media and parents, deeming a school a failure, and then not providing the resources. 

 

Public school educators work with students of varied abilities.  When you witness such daily efforts, you come to appreciate the many dedicated staff members who strive each day to help kids become successful.  In this writers opinion many schools and the staff members who work hard in schools every day are being unfairly singled out through AYP.  Standardized tests alone do not define success.  If they did there would be a lot of us in the adult world who would be in big trouble.  They offer a small snapshot.  Accountability demands a lot more than that!