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Dealing with 'Those' Kids

Ohanian comment: If you have never thought about NCLB and other Standardisto schemes being implements in a class war, then read this article carefully. There is nothing exceptional about this article. There have been hundreds of similar ones in newspapers across the country reporting on schools trying to deal with NCLB. And that's the point. Everybody would be doing well--if it weren't for those kids. What's the next step? Ship those kids off to different schools--so they don't mess up the records of the 'good' schools. And hold them back. This is what Rod Paige did in Houston, and look at him now.

Larry Golembieski and his staff at Ringgold School District were getting jittery about their school district's test scores.

Before the results appeared on any statewide report card, they decided, something needed to be done. So the superintendent called the teachers together last year "and I challenged them to improve those scores," Golembieski said.

With a combination of more time, money and effort, this year "they literally knocked our socks off," he said. "I was going to laud their efforts."

Then on Tuesday, the state's first school report card was issued. Ringgold Middle School received a low rating for one reason -- poor math scores of one small group of students, those who come from low-income families.

But overall, the district's scores even exceeded the state's targets. Now Golembieski is among several school officials statewide who say the "subgroup" rating system is unfair and plan to file an appeal with the state.

Still, with their less-than-flattering rating "flashing across the television screens, the damage is already done," said a glum Ed Repka, Ringgold's assistant superintendent.

The U.S. Department of Education, however, creator of the federal law that resulted in the test-score scrutiny, isn't handing out any sympathy cards.

"No Child Left Behind," the title of the law, means just that, federal officials say. And they're coming down hard on local school districts that may have hordes of high-achieving kids who distract attention from a few smaller groups who don't do well at all.

"That goes to the heart of what the NCLB is all about," said Ron Tomalis, U.S. acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. "The law is called 'No Child Left Behind.' It's not called 'no school left behind.' "

Even when the majority of students in a school do well, he said, it's not acceptable when "you do have a pocket in that school [who may be] masked" by their peers' higher scores.

In Pennsylvania, 206 schools, some of them from the state's top districts, were put on the "warning list" or worse solely because of low test scores posted by a small subgroup of students.

By state definition, those subgroups are:

Students enrolled in special education.

Students with limited English language skills.

Black students.

American Indian or Alaskan students.

Hispanic or Latino students.

Asian/Pacific Islander students.

Poor or "economically disadvantaged" students.

More than two dozen appeals have been filed with the state Department of Education by school district officials who disagree with their ratings; that number is likely to increase as local educators sort through the complex data of subgroups.

Still, it could have been worse.

The subgroups are included on a school's report card only if there were more than 40 students in that group. In other words, a school with 39 black students or 23 foreign-born students doesn't have to submit those scores for scrutiny.

In fact, 265 schools in Pennsylvania didn't have to report their fifth-grade test scores for blacks, low-income students or other subgroups this year because of the 40-student threshold.

And John Thompson, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, thinks that's unfair.

"They're letting people off the hook," he said.

In his own district, there were four generally high-performing schools that were placed on a lower-performing list because of poor scores by students in various subgroups.

"It's unfortunate that Sterrett and those other schools are on this list, but they're accountable for those [subgroup] kids, too," Thompson said.

Though it may be a new challenge for suburban districts, urban districts have always been faced with the academic struggles of minority groups, Thompson said. "If we have to deal with this, they should, too. ... We all knew this was coming down. No use in crying the blues now."

In Shaler Area School District, special education students' scores contributed to three schools' placement on the warning list.

That doesn't make much sense to Assistant Superintendent Brad Ferko. "Many of them ... are not on grade level," he said. "That's why they're in special education."

A few superintendents privately complained that, while other districts discreetly find ways to keep poor-performing students from being tested, their districts were being penalized for obeying the law.

In Shaler, Superintendent Donald Lee said that his district strictly adhered to the state mandate that all students be tested. "We're law-abiding citizens," he said. "We play with what we're dealt."

While Ferko emphasized that Shaler would "celebrate" the high scores of many of its students, improvement plans are under way. Tutoring programs that already are used will be expanded, and schools will use more "testing strategies."

"We're going to have to devote more resources" to increasing subgroup scores, Lee said. But especially under the current economic crunch, he wondered, "What's going to happen to some of the other programs, like band or technology?"

In Rochester Area School District, Superintendent Constantine Galitsis was dismayed to see the district's elementary school on the state's warning list.

"It singles out the rather sterling performance of the elementary school as being deficient," he said. Low reading scores among low-income pupils "changed all that hard work."

But, he added, "This is the way it's done now. And maybe these [subgroups] might be a group that we've never thought of before. Maybe we've overlooked that group."

The district will continue and possibly increase its after-school program, which provides not only tutoring but snacks and transportation, said Galitsis, who became superintendent last year.

"And we'll modify our curriculum and make sure that the reading practice gets done," he said.

He hopes that parents don't look at the school's placement on the warning list "and think, hey, what's wrong with that school."

"We're accepting this as a challenge," he said. "We just have to dig a little deeper."

— Jane Elizabeth
Schools say low test scores by small groups skew results


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