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Many N.C. Schools Expect to Fall Short of New U.S. Standards

Ohanian Comment: The reporter terms NCLB standard "rigorous"; there are a few other words that would apply. One could start with "punitive." Note who the "teacher" is who praises NCLB--someone who has moved into "an administrative role."

Schools in the Triangle and across North Carolina have been basking in good
news lately: Test scores are up like never before.

Now they're bracing for the bad news.

On Friday, hundreds of the state's 2,300 schools are likely to be informed that they fall short of a rigorous new federal standard requiring them to raise the test scores of their weakest students. State school officials
estimate that as many as half of all schools will be slapped with the label "needs improvement."

Under the new law, called No Child Left Behind, schools must demonstrate that they're closing the achievement gap. The law requires schools to divide their enrollments into a variety of categories by race, income and certain educational disadvantages. For a school to get a passing grade, every subgroup must show good results.

If one group misses the mark, the whole school does. It's either pass or fail; all or nothing.

The outcome of Friday's report is uncertain, because the law has never been applied before. Education officials know only how schools would have fared last year had the standard been in place. A state analysis of 2001-2002 test scores found that only a third of North Carolina schools would have met the goal.

For most schools that miss the mark, the immediate fallout mostly will be a matter of bad publicity.

State education leaders have been bracing for months for a mix of confusion and bad news. The Department of Public Instruction has issued a 90-page communications manual to explain the law.

The educators have good reason to worry. In Wake County, for example, where schools rank high with the state ABCs accountability program, barely four out of every 10 schools would have met the federal standard if it had been in place in 2002.

"We've finally figured out the ABCs," said Mary Castleberry, principal of Carver Elementary School in Wendell. "And now we're playing in a different game with different rules."

Some states have reacted to the new law by making it easier for schools to pass. North Carolina officials insist that they won't do that and stress that the law can help the state's efforts to improve its schools.

"Public schools must be accountable to all our children," Gov. Mike Easley said Friday through his education adviser, J.B. Buxton. "This law is good public policy that North Carolina is embracing, especially for the sake of our at-risk students."

Standards skyrocket

Ultimately, No Child Left Behind has a goal that many educators quietly call unrealistic: By 2014, 100 percent of students in every school will pass tests in reading and math.

The state's ABCs of Public Education accountability system will remain in place, as will the annual end-of-grade tests in reading and math. The tests will provide the critical classroom measurement for both state and
federal systems.

The state accountability program focuses heavily on growth from one year to the next. The No Child Left Behind program, using the same test data, credits schools only when they pass a set bar that is raised every three years.

"The feds don't distinguish between schools that miss their targets by a little and those that miss by a mile," said Mike Ward, state superintendent of schools. "The problem is that the harshest sanctions apply equally
regardless of performance."

Education researchers already know that many schools winning top honors under North Carolina's ABCs system will be termed "needing improvement" under No Child Left Behind.

A year from now, schools that fail to meet the federal standard for a second year in a row will start to face more serious consequences.

If a school that falls short of the goal receives Title I funds -- a category of federal aid for schools with high percentages of low-income students -- it will be required to allow students to transfer to schools that do meet the federal standard.

After three unsuccessful years in a row, schools must provide private tutoring to low-income students. More sanctions apply after four years or more, leading to replacement of the school's staff.

The sanctions under the federal law apply only to those schools receiving money under Title I. North Carolina this year received $214 million for 1,075 schools, about half of all the public schools in the state.

Schools that don't receive Title I aid will not be touched by the sanctions, but they will still receive the "needs improvement" label if
they fail to meet the federal standard.

Complicating the issue even further, 37 public schools and 12 charter schools statewide may be required to allow students to transfer immediately based on the reports to be released Friday. These are schools already identified as being in jeopardy under a previous performance standard for Title I schools.

Relief comes early

At Wilburn Elementary School in northeast Raleigh , a preview of Friday's report has brought a sense of relief. Wilburn and other Wake year-round schools got early notice of their performance because their new year
started last week. A Title I school with one of Wake's most diverse enrollments, Wilburn met the federal requirement by reaching the passing
standard for all four subgroups represented at the school: low-income, special education, black and white.

Teachers at the school said the objective of No Child Left Behind helped spur changes that sharpened their instruction, especially for students struggling to pass state tests.

"We knew that because we have such a diverse student body, that we'd have to work smarter and harder to help our students succeed," said Betsi Lohr, an instructional resource teacher who helps guide teachers at the school.

Among the changes the school instituted last year was a rigorous calendar to ensure that the state's curriculum was covered thoroughly and at a set pace. Teachers were required to closely monitor student progress, and
administrators made sure that teachers were doing so.

Lohr, a classroom teacher for 23 years before moving into an administrative role, said she supports the goal of the federal program but said teachers can't be expected to reach it on their own.

"It has to be tempered with common sense," she said. "You can't just dump it on the teachers. You have to give them support."

Elsewhere, the focus of the new law -- with its stress on getting low-achieving students to pass standardized tests -- has divided parents
over the amount of attention their children's schools should devote to the issue.

Mia Green, a mother with two children at Bugg Elementary School in Raleigh, spent much of the past year organizing a parent committee aimed at closing the achievement gap. Green, who is black , said the No Child Left Behind law served as a helpful focus.

"It creates a sense of urgency that we desperately need," Green said. "For that reason, it's a good thing. It's a good start, and a good thing to be pushing towards."

Avelita Ocampo, who also has two children at Bugg, worries that the law focuses only on getting students to a minimal passing standard. Both of her children are already passing.

Ocampo said the law is forcing teachers to focus too heavily on tests.

"As you put in more regulations, you curtail the creativity of a lot of other teachers," Ocampo said. "It's made teachers more accountable, but I don't know that it's made them better."

— Todd Silberman
Braced for Bad Marks
Charlotte News & Observer
Julyl 13, 2003


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