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Virginia Schools Told They Don't Measure Up

Ohanian Comment: When are school leaders going to wake up to the fact that it's the standards that are causing the mess?

Only a handful of Virginia's school districts and slightly more than half of individual schools made enough progress on state reading and math tests this year to comply with the new federal No Child Left Behind law.

Even in Northern Virginia, where many schools have achieved the top ranking on the state's five-year-old Standards of Learning exams, not a single school district made the mark. Locally and statewide, most schools that fell short did so because special education and immigrant students scored poorly on the tests.

For the first time, the law requires schools to track the scores of subgroups of students -- including whites, blacks, Hispanics and children from low-income families -- and each group must hit the target pass rate on the tests. The target will rise gradually until 2014, when the law mandates reading and math proficiency for all students.

In Maryland, results released last month showed that 37 percent of schools failed to make "adequate yearly progress" under the law, with special education, immigrant and low-income students lagging behind on the new Maryland School Assessment tests.

Virginia's results, though widely predicted, turned up the volume among some state educators who have joined colleagues nationwide in criticizing the far-reaching education law, signed by President Bush in 2001.

The way it measures progress is "extremely punitive," said Rebecca L. Perry, superintendent of the small, diverse Alexandria district, where five of 18 schools made the grade. "It's not a meaningful way to judge schools. The state has a far better plan in terms of looking at accreditation -- that's still our focus." Under the state's Standards of Learning, the prize is a "fully accredited" rating when a certain percentage of all students in a school passes the tests.

Loudoun County Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III said the law's complicated requirements penalize many good schools. Although he said all schools could stand some improvement, he urged parents not to rush to judgment on their neighborhood schools based on the results, which are being released today.

"Fundamentally, I think that 95 percent of our nation's schools are doing just fine," said Hatrick, who is also president-elect of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. "Rather than direct our resources -- and I don't mean just capital resources, I mean intellectual resources -- toward solving the problems where they exist, we're taking this scattergun approach and going out and trying to improve schools that are already doing just fine."

Some state officials said the results will force educators to focus on the achievement gap between whites and minority groups, especially those with limited English skills and those from poorer families. "We're going to have to keep it on the front burner," said Thomas M. Jackson Jr., president of the state Board of Education.

Advocates of the law said its standards and attention to minorities are the only way to see behind averages, which can hide the poor scores of some students.

"When you have an accountability system based on averages, you can't know if you're really providing educational excellence to all kids," said Jeanne Brennan, spokeswoman for Washington-based Education Trust, which pushed for the law.

Tracking and reporting the scores is an enormous undertaking. Virginia now estimates it will cost the state $10.8 million in the next two years to develop the technology to do it.

Under the federal law, a school that fails to progress two years in a row is placed on a special watch list and faces consequences. At schools with a large proportion of low-income children, parents are allowed to transfer their children to other schools or get outside tutors for their children -- both at the school system's expense.

Prince William County School Superintendent Edward L. Kelly said he applauded the law's intent but doubted that the penalties can be enforced. "I think originally people had good things in mind, but it's become so . . . convoluted," he said. "I don't think they're going to be able to follow through."

State officials have warned for months that many high-performing schools that have achieved accreditation on the state SOLs would not make "adequate yearly progress" under the federal law.

Hatrick said the job of explaining the contradiction will fall mostly to school principals, who must tell parents plainly where their schools fell short and what improvements are being made. Parents might understand, he said, if the school fell short in just one category.

"If I'm a parent, that's a whole different story to me than if the whole school didn't pass, if no group made it," he said.

Perry said diverse school systems such as Alexandria's are at a disadvantage.

"Any school division with a high poverty or [limited English] population is going to have a very difficult time in meeting these measures," she said. A student "could arrive to you in March and be expected to take a test in a different language the next month. It's crazy."

Many Virginia schools and school districts did not make adequate progress only because they tested too few students with limited English skills, exempting those who were facing the test for the first time. The federal law requires schools to test 95 percent of each group of students, and in June -- after the tests had been given -- federal officials said they would not accept the exemption.

In Arlington, where 17 of the district's 29 schools did not make adequate progress, Superintendent Robert G. Smith said the decision was unfair. Next year, he added, the district will "assiduously follow kids to make sure they get tested," he said.

Statewide, 24 percent of students with limited English skills were allowed to skip the reading tests. Next year, when there will be no exemptions, simple reading and math tests will be available for students with limited English skills.

More than half of Fairfax County schools did not meet the targets set under the No Child Left Behind law, and officials there attributed it to the failure to test limited-English and special education students.

"To expect a newly arrived child to speak English and pass is ridiculous," said Fairfax County Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech.

But Domenech added that the district is taking the data seriously and urging schools to focus on the students who need to improve.

"Historically, a certain amount of failure has been a part of the educational system. What we're saying now is that no failure is allowed," Domenech said.

In general, individual schools that made adequate progress were less diverse and had fewer poor children than schools that missed the mark. Many had fewer than 50 students in certain subgroups and were not required to count their scores in the law's complicated formula.

The law allows each state to set a minimum number for each subgroup to ensure that test results are statistically significant, and states have chosen widely divergent numbers. Virginia chose 50; Maryland counts scores if there are at least five students in a subgroup.

State, district and school results broken down by subgroups of students can be found online at www.pen.k12.va.us.

— Rosalind S. Helderman
Schools In Va. Fail Federal Standards
Washington Post


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