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Nearly 90 % Florida's Schools Fail Under NCLB

Ohanian Note:: This article is more about spin than it is about the performance of Florida's public schools.

  • Note how the article starts out by saying "Florida's public schools." Funny thing, private schools aren't tested. NCLB insists not meeting "adequate yearly progress," but the media insist this is just a euphemism for "failure."

  • The explanation from the spokesperson at the Florida Deparment of Education might be funny if it weren't so pathetic.

  • The name of Jeb's plan--A+. Would anybody ever admit to an F plan? Does a plan lose points if it fails? The article points to a certain amount of grade inflation here.

  • When someone terms this morass a "dilemma for the governor," one can wonder what he'd call a disaster.

  • The governor's spokeswoman gives new meaning to "complimentary."

  • Lisa Keegan, CEO of the Education Leaders Council, steps up to defend Florida with her remark about hinky numbers. Hinky numbers? Is this CEO-speak? It can't be related to hinky pinkys, can it?

  • No matter how one spins it, any school caught in this trap faces a public relations disaster. It looks like 2/3 of Vermont's schools didn't measure up to NCLB.

    Nearly 90 percent of Florida's public schools failed to meet reading and math standards this year under the new federal No Child Left Behind law, The Herald learned Thursday.

    There are no direct consequences to the failures, but they are a stinging rebuke to a system that Gov. Jeb Bush's A+ Plan for Education has painted as steadily improving.

    'What purpose does it serve to call a school an `A' if it's not making adequate progress?'' asked Sam Yarger, dean of the University of Miami School of Education.

    State education officials are scheduled to release the results today in Tallahassee, but sources familiar with the data said only 13 percent of the state's schools demonstrated ''adequate yearly progress,'' federal lingo for meeting No Child Left Behind standards.

    Only 10 percent of Miami-Dade County schools and 18 percent in Broward County met those standards.

    'Just like an `A' student has room for improvement, even a top school can work toward improving performance,'' said Frances Marine, spokeswoman for the Florida Deparment of Education.

    Less than two months ago, Bush touted continuing improvement in the state's school grades: There were six times as many A schools this year than when grading began in 1999, and fewer than half as many F schools.


    But the poor showing under No Child Left Behind -- a cornerstone of President Bush's 2000 election campaign -- carried into those A schools: Of 1,229 statewide, only 22 percent made adequate yearly progress.

    Six percent of the state's B schools succeeded, followed by 2 percent of C schools. No D or F schools qualified.

    ''It creates a dilemma for the governor,'' said Stephen Kutno, a vice president at The Princeton Review who has studied state testing and No Child Left Behind.

    If a school fails to make adequate yearly progress for two consecutive years, it is placed on a ''needs improvement'' list. But being on that list has consequences only for schools in low-income neighborhoods that receive Title I federal funding. Students at those schools can transfer to higher-performing public schools.

    State and federal officials said the Bush brothers' plans were designed to look at public schools in different ways and are not contradictory.

    ''The two measures are actually complimentary,'' said Jill Bratina, the governor's spokeswoman. ``The A+ Plan measures individual student progress, and No Child Left Behind measures the performance of groups of students.''

    Because No Child Left Behind specifically looks at minority, disabled or impoverished students, the vastly different results suggest low performance among those groups.

    ''When you aggregate the data together, certain subgroups aren't reported out and you don't find out that those groups are struggling,'' said Ron Tomalis, an assistant U.S. secretary of education. ``By breaking it out by subgroups, No Child Left Behind finds which groups are succeeding and which are having trouble.''

    The A+ Plan does track minority performance, which lags but is improving faster than overall scores.

    ''The A+ Plan doesn't turn a blind eye to educating minority students,'' Marine said.

    Both programs examine a school's average scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, but No Child Left Behind also checks scores for up to eight student subgroups: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, learning disabled, limited English proficient and low income.

    If any of those subgroups fails to meet benchmark test scores -- or if fewer than 95 percent of the students in a subgroup take the exam -- the entire school fails.

    ''Schools are held accountable for the achievement of all students, not just average student performance,'' wrote U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige in a 2002 letter that explained No Child Left Behind.

    State officials have blamed that hair trigger for the large failure rate, but No Child Left Behind has a complicated back door, called the safe-harbor exemption, which allows schools to claim adequate yearly progress even if one subgroup misses target scores by a reasonable margin.


    With that escape valve, Kutno said Florida's 88 percent failure rate is too large to be dismissed as a technicality.

    ''That's just trying to put a positive spin on it,'' Kutno said. ``It is identifying some underlying issues not being addressed by the Florida grading system.''

    He also suggested a second concern raised by the new scores.

    School grades are influenced heavily by year-to-year improvement, rather than actual scores. Since the federal program is a one-year snapshot, Kutno said upward trends in school grades might have been misleading.

    ''The state plan is the grade for effort, essentially, while the federal plan is for attainment,'' he said.

    The heavy focus on improvement is valued by district officials, especially in urban counties that would otherwise have a hard time earning top grades.

    ''The [No Child Left Behind] model tells you where you'd like to be, but in terms of success you want to see what a school has done to make change this year,'' said Ted Rebarber, president of Accountability Works, a nonprofit research group that studies testing.


    The Florida Education Department also defended the results by pointing to the high standards the state imposed in its plan to put the federal law into practice.

    ''We need to continue to set high standards and our teachers and students will continue to achieve,'' Marine said.

    Other states have been criticized for lowering benchmarks or tailoring goals to make their results appear better. The law gave states wide flexibility, subject to federal approval, over how high scores should be and how they should be calculated.

    ''In 50 out of 50 states these are going to be hinky numbers in the first year,'' said Lisa Keegan, CEO of the Education Leaders Council, a Washington group that supports accountability and school choice. ``Florida didn't do some of the fudging other states did.''

    The different tests, standards and plans make state-to-state comparisons difficult, and fewer than a dozen have released their lists. More are expected next week, and Rebarber said he expects most will have similarly high failure rates.

    Education leaders are especially concerned about confusing parents, who have heard the governor celebrate annual improvements in school grades.

    'If I saw that my state graded me as an `A' and then the federal government said we hadn't met the No Child Left Behind Act, I would be very confused and asking a lot of questions,'' said Karin Brown, a parent activist and former president of the Dade County Council PTA/PTSA. ``From a parent point of view, there's definitely a contradiction here.''

    — Matthew I. Pinzur
    State schools fail to meet new federal test standards
    Miami Herald
    August 8, 2003


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