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Pennsylvanian NCLB Results: A Bureaucratic Nightmare

Ohanian Comment: Modest proposal: Since the performance of special eduation students is what is causing so many districts to "fail" according to NCLB, why don't districts put more students in special ed category? Salt the group with some high-scoring kids. In New York, to name one state, sucah a label would also protect kids from being denied a high school diploma.

I can also see districts changing definitions of what attendance is. All kinds of creative accounting.

A tiny slip in attendance - by 0.01 percent - landed Faust Elementary School in Bensalem on the state school performance "warning" list.

So the district is going to appeal.

Central Bucks East High School made the list for one reason: Not enough special-education students took the state tests.

"We had to make 95 percent. We had a 94.9 percent participation rate for this subgroup," principal Joseph Jennelle said.

Across the region, officials scrambled yesterday to reconcile how schools with good-to-excellent showings on state math and reading tests could be cited for failing to make sufficient progress toward federal and state goals for student achievement.

The state on Tuesday issued a list warning 1,031 schools statewide - including 137 in the four suburban Philadelphia counties - that their schools missed this year's goals.

About 400 other schools statewide, many in Philadelphia and other urban districts, had such poor showings they were put on lists demanding corrective actions.

But among the suburban schools receiving warnings this week, three-quarters did meet - and in many cases greatly exceeded - the state's modest goals for student academic performance. Schools were required this year to have 35 percent of students proficient in math, and 45 percent proficient in reading.

Many suburban schools were snagged for falling short on other indicators, such as daily elementary attendance or high school graduation rates.

Schools also were flagged for falling short with student subgroups, including special-education students and students for whom English is a second language.

Brian Christopher, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said yesterday the warning list was something of a safety measure. "It's sort of a red flag telling you that you have a problem, and you have a year to fix it," he said.

Some states, Christopher said, already are discussing with the U.S. Department of Education whether certain parts of these accountability plans are doable.

In Pennsylvania, districts are bristling - and appealing. By midday yesterday, 26 districts statewide had filed appeals after falling onto the "needs improvement" lists.

In the Upper Merion district, an appeal was likely as the district disputed the showing of special-education students at the middle school. "We were congratulating ourselves on the best scores we ever had, but we got hurt on that subgroup," Superintendent Terry Mancini said. "It's a shame. It almost looks negative."

Stanley Durtan, superintendent of the Wissahickon district, voiced similar frustration. "To say a district or a school is failing because special-education students as a subgroup have not achieved - it's an injustice," he said.

Superintendents expressed vexation at the complexity of the new state accountability system, created this year to comply with federal law. The federal goal is to have every student proficient in math and reading by 2014.

"The provisions seem so convoluted that it is only a matter of time before virtually every school in Pennsylvania finds itself on a warning list for one reason or another," said Michael Pladus, superintendent in the Interboro district in Delaware County, where four schools were cited.

"But at least we were in very good company, joining some other excellent school districts in our area," he said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Rendell said the report was evidence that the state must significantly increase funding for education programs.

"The red flags ought to be up there big and bold," Rendell said at a news conference in the Capitol yesterday. "If these scores don't indicate a need for my school initiatives, I don't know what will."

Rendell has been fighting for his plan to institute full-day kindergarten and reduce class sizes across Pennsylvania, a $400 million initiative that would be funded by an increase in the personal-income tax or a combination of other taxes.

In March, Rendell vetoed a $4 billion state education budget, and, with the start of school less than three weeks away, he and the legislators have yet to agree on a plan to restore it.

The state Education Department released the testing data to school districts last week, and released them publicly Tuesday.

In the Downingtown Area School District, Assistant Superintendent Sandra Griffin expressed concern that the state agency had not given districts time to review and challenge the results.

"School districts were told they had 15 days to appeal; that appeal date is not even up yet," she said. "We believe that there are some discrepancies that will get us off the list" in one case.

Griffin also said that the Downingtown district keeps severely learning-disabled children in classrooms rather than sending them to institutions outside the district. As a result, schools are being made to look like they are performing badly.

Three Downingtown district schools were put on the state warning list this year because of low scores for students with learning disabilities, though the district's overall scores were quite high.

"We value, respect and want the full spectrum of children in our schools, but it may make us look worse to do that," she added.

The Pottstown district also planned to challenge the state findings.

"If all people do is look at that warning list, they'll think the educational system in Pennsylvania is falling apart. That is not an accurate assumption to make," said John Armato, Pottstown spokesman.

That view was echoed by Pladus, the Interboro superintendent. "I am afraid," he said, "that what began with some very noble intentions - No Child Left Behind - is quickly becoming a source of public confusion and a bureaucratic nightmare to administer."

— Connie Langland and Kellie Patrick
Districts Chafe at Narrow Shortfalls
Philadelphia Inquirer
August 14, 2003


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