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Another Vermont Supervisory Union Looking at Refusing NCLB

BRANDON — Forgoing federal aid would be better than facing the penalties of the No Child Left Behind Act, Superintendent William Mathis has advised the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union Board.

The act gives schools 12 years to have at least 95 percent of their students take tests that show they have reached proficiency levels in several subjects, as defined by the states.

All grades and all groups within those grades (ethnic, low income, special education) must reach the 95 percent level.

The financial penalties for noncompliance only affect schools receiving Title 1 money, the federal aid meant to help slower students catch up. But continued failure to make steady progress toward the goal can affect entire school districts, through forced changes in how the schools are governed.

In Mathis’ view, the federal standard will be impossible for almost all Vermont schools to achieve, because this state’s standards are already set so high. That was shown, he said, by the New Standard Reference Exam results, which in 2001 showed 82 percent of eighth-graders in the state and 74 percent of 10th-graders achieved proficiency — compared with the national average of 50 percent.

Expecting all of a school’s students to reach that level of proficiency, except for 5 percent that can be excluded because of serious special education problems or out-of-school placement, is simply not realistic, Mathis said.

Also, he said, classes within a school differ from year to year, especially in small, rural schools where there may be only 10 to 15 students at a grade level. That makes it very likely that any progress won’t be steady, leading to penalties that can severely affect a school’s ability to function.

Testing in 11th grade poses special problems, Mathis said. The students at that level who take the SATs are highly motivated, because those tests affect their future, but the NCLB tests would not affect them personally.

It is possible that some students will just not care, or deliberately do poorly, he said.

“If they were organized about it, it could torpedo the school,” Mathis said.

According to a summary of the law by the Center for Educational Policy, a Title 1 school that fails to meet performance objectives for two years will get technical help from the district, but its students will have the option to transfer to another district school.

After three years of shortfalls, the right to transfer continues, but families also can use their share of Title 1 money to pay for tutoring and other outside services. Four years of lagging adds a mandated change in school staffing or some other major change, while five years of failing to progress leads to a forced change in governance (state takeover, privatization).

In other words, Mathis said, rich schools that don’t rely on Title I won’t be affected. Poor schools, which need the money, can have it taken away from them if only one subgroup in the school fails to make the required steady progress.

Some rural schools will escape the penalties because they have too few students in classes to have their results statistically significant, Mathis said. But those schools will be severely affected by a requirement that by 2005-06, every teacher must be “highly qualified,” meaning they have a bachelor’s degree in the subject they teach, they are certified to teach that subject, and must demonstrate proficiency in their subject and their teaching ability.

No longer will it be possible for one teacher to handle courses in two subjects, Mathis said. For small high schools, that could be devastating, he said.

The problem for Rutland Northeast is that not all schools would be affected the same way by rejecting Title 1 money, Mathis said. For Otter Valley Union High School, which does not get such help, it would be a symbolic action, he said.

The Otter Valley School Board has directed Mathis to write to the Department of Education to get a legal opinion on the effects of such an action. The Rutland Northeast Board is also investigating the situation.

One of the complications, Mathis said, is that supervisory unions were not well understood by the writers of the No Child Left Behind Act, who were used to county systems. There is a legal question whether Rutland Northeast can, in fact, refuse the Title 1 money, because under state law it is not a municipal entity.

In Brandon, Title 1 money is $94,203 of the $3,912,983 budget for 2003-04, or 2.4 percent. The percentage is not large, Mathis said — the national average is about 4 percent — but that would be a sizable addition to the costs.

In Leicester, Title 1 is $21,672 out of $893,199, also 2.4 percent. For Whiting, $13,268 out of a budget of $324,465 comes to about 4.1 percent.

For Mathis, one reason for rejecting the act is its focus on individual test results, without trying to educate students to be effective members of their communities. And although voting for No Child Left behind was politically popular, as a way of being “for higher standards,” it is not true that Vermont’s schools are in deep trouble, he said.

The last SAT math scores for Vermont showed the highest scores in 36 years, with the highest proportion ever of students taking the exam, Mathis said.

“That’s not a sign of a failing system.”

— Ed Barna
Rutland Northeast schools consider rejecting federal aid
Rutland Herald


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