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Ye Who Live By Test Scores Shall Die by Test Scores Redux
RESEDA -- There was ecstasy at Melvin Elementary School when Gov. Gray Davis singled out the campus as a poster child of education reform in 2001.

Now, just one year after receiving a standing ovation during the State of the State address, there's agony: Melvin Elementary finds itself labeled a failing school under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, even though its test scores have soared over the past three years.

The seeming contradiction has left Melvin's faculty and parents of its students perplexed and a little angry.

"To put us under this horrible onus, that we are the worst school in the area, is so unfair and degrading to us," said second-grade teacher Susan Carl.

Between 1999 and 2002, Melvin's score on the state Academic Performance Index -- a ranking of schools based on standardized test results -- leaped from 558 to 688 on a scale of 200 to 1,000 points.

Its 130-point jump was one of the largest in the district and lifted it ahead of 55 other elementary schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, according to an analysis by the Daily News.

But because of the quirkiness of the No Child Left Behind Act, those elementary schools performing lower than Melvin, with the exception of one, are not defined by the landmark reform statute as failing.

Officially dubbed "program improvement schools," failing schools must offer parents the option of transferring their children to "successful" campuses -- essentially those that are not on the failing list. In the worst-case scenario, schools can face sanctions ranging from probation to state takeover.

With its main office walls proudly decorated with certificates and plaques of recognition from the district and the city, Melvin appears to be anything but a failing school.

It's a school where teachers meet twice a week to discuss strategies, and are known to stay after hours and sneak back to work during vacation. The faculty prepares monthly reports on classes, keeping track of student progress one at a time.

"One hundred and thirty points in three years is nothing to sneer at," said Principal Susan Cohen Grossman, who flew to Sacramento with a parent, student and teacher to attend the State of the State address in January 2001.

"We have a situation here where people are knocking on our door to come back to public school," she said of a trickle of parents pulling their children out of private schools to return to Melvin each year.

So impressive is the turnaround at Melvin -- where 76 percent of the students are low-income -- Detroit public education officials recently visited the Reseda campus for ideas on how to improve their inner-city schools.

In January, Melvin is hosting another entourage from Florida interested in copying the school's Autism Demonstration Training Site, the first program of its kind in the district, which mainstreams autistic children.

Nationally certified teacher Sangeeta Maithel, who was at the State of the State address, expressed a sense of betrayal at being labeled a failing school.

"It seems like they don't believe in positive reinforcement anymore. They just bash you down," she said.

District and state officials said their hands are tied by provisions of the federal statute.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, a school may not drop the failing label unless it has met state growth targets two years in a row for the entire school and significant subgroups -- such as Latino students and the socioeconomically disadvantaged.

In Melvin's case, the school overall posted a 79-point gain in 1999-2000, more than six times its growth target of 12. Then in 2000-01, the school improved its academic ranking by six points, two points below the target. But in 2001-02, it again made a huge gain of 45 points, whereas its growth target was 8.

It was the small drop-off in 2000-01 that caused Melvin to be labeled a failing school.

"You need two years of consecutively meeting the target. That's the federal law on this issue," said Maria Reyes, a program consultant for the California Department of Education.

By the same token, schools that may have a lower academic ranking than Melvin but have met their growth target for two consecutive years are not placed on the failing list.

Grossman said it's common for a major improvement in test scores to be followed by a minor increase. The phenomenon is known as "regression of the mean" among educators.

A more meaningful way to look at academic achievement, she said, would be to track student progress from year to year, instead of just looking at annual results in isolation.

According to a study conducted by Grossman on fourth- and fifth-graders, they made substantial annual gains over the past four years in multiple subjects -- up to 20 percent growth in some instances.

Melvin Elementary parents said they are happy with the education their children are getting at the school and would not consider transfers.

"I wouldn't have my children go anywhere," said Jolina Mosely, president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Melvin, who built what was a skeletal organization into a strong presence over the past few years.

Mosely credits the school for turning around the education of her son, Chris, who was transferred to Melvin after he got into trouble at another school. At Melvin, he thrived because of the caring environment.

"Our children perform amazingly," she said. "If a child isn't interested in a subject, a teacher finds different ways to make it exciting. We have children who can't wait to come to school."

— Helen Gao
Ratings quirk puts school on the bottom
Los Angeles Daily News
Jan. 5, 2003


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