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New Federal Rating Unfair to Delaware Schools

Though the details of this story are Delaware specific, the themes apply
to most states. And it's good to see a headline saying the Feds are wrong.

Last year when the federal government released state-by-state lists of
public schools that failed to meet performance standards under the
federal No Child Left Behind law, Michigan had more than 1,500.

This year, it has only 216 because its state school board adjusted the
calculation that determines how each of its schools is rated on adequate
yearly progress.

But Delaware, credited with having developed particularly high academic
standards for its public schools during the mid-1990s, has made no such

That partly explains why at noon today state education officials are
expected to announce that the majority of the state's 28 high schools
are on academic review or, worse, academic watch for not making
sufficient yearly progress.

Many elementary and middle schools will be in the same situation,
leaving school officials with a public relations headache as Delaware,
like other states, adjusts to the realities of No Child Left Behind, the
federal school reform act of 2001.

Under the new law's complex rating system, every public school in the
nation eventually will cycle in or out of academic review or academic
watch, critics predict.

"It's a setup," said Paul G. Carlson, executive director of the Delaware
Association of School Administrators. "It's going to do what it was
designed to do, make public schools look bad."

Public school officials here and in other states have said the new law
is designed to promote charter schools and voucher systems, a charge
backers deny.

Concentration on 'cells'

Most loudly, though, educators are complaining about an elaborate rating
system that includes state test scores, goals and groupings of students
by both race and income, represented by what are called cells.

Under the rating system, the larger or more diverse a district or
school, the greater its chances of falling from a superior or
commendable school into the academic review or academic watch category.
Failure in one cell can do that.

A single school can have as many as 37 cells and a district as many as
45 cells. The test participation rate of Hispanic students, for example,
is one cell, the participation rate of Asian students another, that of
African-American students and special education students, two more
cells. Under the law, each group must have a 95 percent test
participation rate, which is the easiest part, educators said.

Other cells represent average test scores for each group, Hispanic
students in reading, for example, then in math, and the scores must
improve continually until 2014, when 100 percent in each group must meet
the state standards.

It's an unrealistic, self-defeating goal akin to saying doctors must
cure 100 percent of their cancer patients, said Milford schools
Superintendent Robert Smith. The ratings feel like a slap in the face,
he said.

"Delaware's made incredible progress in the last six years," Smith said.
"And then to label ourselves like this, it's just disheartening."

Smith said a school labeled commendable in his district last year under
the state's old rating system will be in academic review this year under
the new federal rating system.

In the Red Clay Consolidated School District, one school reached 24 of
its 25 benchmarks under the new rating system but as of today will be on
the academic watch list for a second year in a row, Superintendent
Robert Andrzejewski said.

"Where in America is 96 percent a failure?" Andrzejewski asked.

Facing consequences

Although the public doesn't see the school ratings until today, each
school superintendent received his or her district and school ratings
last month. Before opening day in some schools, depending on the
severity of their ratings, districts must offer various remedies to
parents that range from tutoring programs to allowing them to transfer
their children to another school.

Delaware performed well on the National Assessment of Educational
Progress, a series of exams overseen by the federal government and known
as The Nation's Report Card, but under the new ratings, "our schools are
not going to look too good," Carlson of the school administrators
association said.

Results for the 2002 Report Card, released several weeks ago, showed
Delaware fourth- and eighth-graders, the grade levels regularly tested
by the federal government, leap-frogging over peers in other states. In
reading, for example, both grade levels made the greatest point gain in
overall scores in the nation, moving Delaware from the bottom third to
the top third of states. In writing, fourth-graders posted the
third-highest results in the country.

And on the SAT-9 tests, the Stanford Achievement Test Version 9,
embedded in Delaware's annual academic achievement tests, Delaware
students also scored high relative to national norms. Pointing to such
results, educators and parents are complaining that the state tests are
too difficult and cutoff scores for meeting the standards too high,
especially in eighth- and 10th-grade math.

Math may explain why many of the state's high schools are expected to be
on the academic review list. Each year since math testing began, fewer
than 50 percent of 10th-graders have been able to meet the standard.

Because the standards are so high, critics of No Child Left Behind said,
an inordinate number of schools will be labeled on academic review or
academic watch. That casts a poor light, they said, on a public school
system that has made strides in a state that has unusually diverse
schools and an unusually high number of children in private or parochial

State Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff last week rejected the
idea of revising test standards and calculations so the ratings under
the new law would not make Delaware look bad compared with other states.

"We've taken the first steps in meeting this law and we will continue," she said. "I refuse to give up. I just won't do it."

— Michele Fuetsch
New Federal Rating Unfair to Delaware Schools
Delaware News-Journal

August 11, 2003


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