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Hundreds of Washington Schools Fail NCLB Standards

More than 400 public schools in Washington state failed to meet the student performance standards set by a new federal educational law, putting them on a path toward increasingly severe corrective measures.

Those measures range from free busing for students who choose to go to more successful schools to complete restructuring as a state-run school.

Among the 436 schools identified as underperforming by scores released yesterday from the Washington Assessment of Student Learning test, 50 already face corrective action. That's because they were judged as substandard under an earlier federal law and have been folded into the new No Child Left Behind legislation.

One of those 50 schools is Cascade Middle School south of Seattle, in the Highline School District. In the 2002-03 school year, it was required to offer free transportation to students choosing to attend a more successful Highline school, an option only one or two students took. In 2003-04, the school must provide tutoring for students from poor families who request it.

Karen Cody, whose daughter, Gemma, starts eighth grade at Cascade next week, isn't interested in changing schools.

"My daughter really likes going to school by our house," Cody said.

Gemma is a straight-A student, her mother said. "She's gotten a really good education here just because she's applied herself."

Cody doesn't put much stock in No Child Left Behind. "It just doesn't seem to work for the kids," she said. "I haven't seen that the federal government has given the school any tools to help them meet the standards."

Critics of the new federal rules say they're unfair because school populations are divided into different subcategories based on ethnic groups and other factors. If even one of those categories doesn't meet the year's standards, a school is considered unsuccessful.

Chinook Middle School in SeaTac, also in the Highline district, is in the same boat as Cascade and faces corrective action. Chinook failed to meet the federal standard this year despite solid gains in its WASL scores from last spring's test. The school sent parents a letter several days ago informing them of the busing option, and principal Todd Moorhead said he expects eight or 10 families will take advantage of it.

But the main effect of the letter on parents may be confusion, Moorhead said. "They're hearing this message that the school is making this progress," he said. "And then they're told they have this option to leave, that the school is failing."

Similar school-choice letters are going out to parents of students at four Seattle schools: T.T. Minor, Concord and Madrona elementary schools and the middle school at the African-American Academy.

Overall in Seattle, the state's largest school district, 38 of 120 schools and programs failed to measure up on the federal yardstick, administrators said. Altogether, there are nearly 2,000 public schools in the state.

The No Child Left Behind law, signed by President Bush in January 2002, makes more federal money available for K-12 education. But it holds educators accountable for failures in teaching the nation's 48 million public-school pupils.

In judging whether a school or school district passes muster, it relies on a state's own assessment system -- in Washington state, the WASL tests, administered each spring in grades four, seven and 10.

The goal is to lift all students to the WASL standard of proficiency in reading and math (and later, science) by 2014.

The federal law calls for states to establish a statistical bar that schools and districts must clear to avoid corrective action, beginning with the percentage of students achieving proficiency now and gradually increasing to 100 percent over the next 11 years.

Making it harder for schools and districts to hit the targets is a federal requirement that subcategories of students, defined by race, ethnicity, poverty, disability and lack of English-language skill, must be separately measured -- and all must clear the bar to get the seal of approval.

Many schools came up short because of low marks in just one subcategory.

Sammamish High School in Bellevue, for example, did not make the grade because its special education students in grade 10 fell short in reading and math -- even though other subgroups and the school as a whole scored above the cutoff point.

To keep one or two weak students in a tiny grouping from skewing the results, the law only counts subcategories with 30 or more students in them.

But that creates situations such as the one in the Issaquah School District, where each of the 21 schools made the grade under No Child Left Behind, but the district as a whole did not: Seventh- and 10th-grade special education students, who are too few in individual middle schools and high schools to register on the federal scorecard, number more than 30 districtwide, and their scores fell short of the goal.

"We're very aware of the irony, and we're aware of the confusion that this could create," said Mary Waggoner, the communications director for the Issaquah schools.

Districts, too, face corrective action under the federal law. If a district fails to hit the mark two years' running, the state must cut its financial support, change district administrators, assume control of the district, put in a new curriculum or allow students to transfer to neighboring districts.

The remedies for both schools and districts apply only to those that receive money to teach poor children under Title I, the main federal education program. Nearly half the state's schools fall under Title I, and almost all the districts do.

For the vast majority of those underperforming schools, the scores released yesterday from last spring's Washington Assessment of Student Learning have no immediate consequences. That's because the remedies don't begin until a school has come up short for two consecutive years, and this is the first year the numbers count under the landmark federal law.

The state's 10-year-old school reform effort, of which the WASL is a key part, won praise from Charles Hasse, president of the Washington Education Association, the teachers union.

Its federal counterpart did not.

"We believe the sweeping new rules and restrictions from the federal government interfere with continued progress and paint a false picture of school performance," Hasse said.

Interim Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Raj Manhas saw the glass as half full with the 82 schools that earned passing scores.

"For that many schools to make it, I think is a tremendous success story," Manhas said. "We have made a huge amount of progress over the last two, three, four years."

Performance on the WASL has added meaning this year with the implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The law requires states to set annual goals in reading and mathematics for all schools and districts that lead to all students being proficient by 2014.

Yearly achievement targets rise each year and are used to determine if schools, school districts and entire states are making "adequate yearly progress" toward the 2014 goal.

The law shifts the focus on accountability from the overall performance of students to the performance of the following groups: all students, the five major racial/ethnic groups, students with disabilities, English-language learners and students from low-income backgrounds.

— Gregory Roberts
Hundreds of schools fail new standards
Seattle Post Intelligencer
August 27, 2003


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