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Saginaw Recognizes NCLB Madness

Some schools that met standards last year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act still are listed for possible sanctions.

Some schools that failed to meet the standards a year ago are not listed for penalties.

So what's going on?

Saginaw County educators say they are struggling to explain reforms that President Bush and Congress have adopted.

They gathered today at Intermediate School District headquarters while the state Department of Education cited more than 200 schools that have failed to meet standards for "adequate yearly progress."

Saginaw County has 11 schools -- 10 from Saginaw and one from Buena Vista -- on the list, based on test scores in the Michigan Educational Assessment Program.

"The federal government is pushing this like a train. It's been invented on the fly," said Craig C. Douglas, superintendent of Carrollton Public Schools.

"There are a lot of rules that need to be sorted out that perhaps weren't thought out. There's a lot of bells and whistles with this, but I'm not certain that it's going to bring much change."

Bush and Congress have moved to hold educators accountable mostly by measuring student test scores, similar to former Gov. John M. Engler during the 1990s. Engler's successor, Jennifer M. Granholm, has endorsed the Bush approach and promised to offer support to schools deemed as "failing."

States may determine their own standards for "adequate yearly progress," known as AYP, but then must receive federal approval.

Michigan last year had 1,513 schools fall short, the nation's highest count, but educators said the count was inflated because of unreasonably strict guidelines.

The state Department of Education responded with a 12-year AYP plan that reduces test-score standards in the early years but gradually pushes the target to 100 percent by 2013-14.

In last year's results, released today, elementary schools needed 47 percent of pupils to receive "proficient" scores in math and 38 percent in reading. Middle school thresholds were 31 percent for both math and reading.

The lower measuring sticks helped more schools achieve adequate yearly progress for 2001-02.

To escape possible sanctions, however, a school must "pass" two consecutive years -- and to make the list, a school must "fail" twice in a row.

The result is that some schools that succeeded a year ago are still on the list, while some that failed last year are not.

When passing is failing

Merrill Community Schools offers an example of possible public puzzlement.

Merrill Middle is listed as needing improvement but Merrill Elementary isn't, even though both surpassed adequate yearly progress standards in 2001-02. The difference is that Merrill Middle didn't meet the guidelines two years ago or three years ago.

"It is terribly, horribly confusing," said Christine Garno, the district's curriculum and instruction director.

"We've been in the process of trying to explain AYP to our parents, and we've been trying to figure out what it means to our districts, to our families and to our kids."

The Birch Run, Carrollton, Hemlock, Saginaw and Saginaw Township school districts have schools that met adequate yearly progress last year, but remain identified for improvement.

Administrators in many of the districts are seeking appeals to avoid or delay sanctions.

"The key thing is that we made AYP this year," Douglas said.

The report also identifies Hemlock Middle School as needing improvement.

"We don't have a problem in Hemlock," said Hemlock Superintendent Clifford Crossett.

"The report is malarkey. We think we're making adequate yearly progress out here. Our kids scores among the highest in the county year in and year out."

The state report identified Freeland Elementary School as needing corrective action, although the school met standards last year. Freeland school administrators hadn't received a report on Freeland Middle School as of Friday.

School leaders united

Educators who must report negative news to their communities aren't the only skeptics.

Swan Valley Superintendent Richard J. Syrek also raises questions, even though his district came out on the positive side in today's report.

A year ago, the scoring system cited Swan Valley Middle School -- along with Havens and Shields elementaries -- as falling short.

"We had trouble with the old formula, which I thought was ridiculous," Syrek said, referring to a requirement for annual test-score gains of at least 6 percentage points.

"You've got to give people a chance," he said. "The MEAP is a tough test; it's much more than minimum requirements for what students should know."

Swan Valley Board of Education members and administrators will look to remain ahead of the curve for the redefined standards, Syrek said.

"We're looking at setting our own standards of where we should be at," he said.

"But reaching 100 percent is unrealistic. We'll work at it, but that's nearly impossible to reach."

Joel J. Tanner, president of the Saginaw Education Association -- the Saginaw School District's teacher union -- is less diplomatic.

"This is a politician's bill to make politicians seem concerned about education," Tanner said.

"If you asked educators what they would do to improve education, you would see nothing like the No Child Left Behind Act. I don't see where it's going to benefit students or improve education."

Different standards

Districts with enough low-income families to qualify for federal Title I money must make special provisions if schools repeatedly fall short of adequate yearly progress.

For example, a district could face a requirement to pay for private tutors, or to transport students to other schools with higher test scores.

Districts that don't get Title I money are exempt from most sanctions, even though their schools may appear on the state list.

At the same time, Douglas noted that the transportation rule won't come into play in smaller districts.

"The school choice option isn't anything new. Most schools already have in-district school choice," Douglas said.

"It doesn't make a difference in a small district like ours with one elementary, one middle school, one high school."

Not meeting the test score benchmark for four consecutive years could lead schools to replace teachers, extend the school year or school day or change the curriculum.

If problems persist for a fifth consecutive year, the school may have to re-open as a charter school, submit to a state takeover or hire a for-profit company to run the building.

More scores to come

State officials needed most of the 2002-03 school year to determine adequate yearly progress for 2001-02. Even with the delay, they still have omitted more than 10 percent of the state's 2,800 elementary and middle schools, although none in Saginaw County.

Regardless, the state education department still intends to release the 2002-03 report in June or July.

The result is that districts will receive a pair of annual reports in a span of two or three months.

"I don't understand why the state (didn't wait) to release the report," Crossett said. "It makes more sense to include this year's MEAP scores and capture all the schools."

Test results will mean little until states adopt "consistent" tests and standards that don't change year by year, said Merrill Superintendent Kenneth M. Tesauro.

"We aren't going to be testing the same group of kids every year," he said.

"The seventh-graders who made AYP last year aren't the same seventh graders who didn't make it the year before."

The report due in June or July also will include information on high schools and the more stringent requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, which include:

At least 95 percent of a school's students must take the MEAP, including pupils enrolled in special education courses and those who don't speak English as a first language. Critics have said districts with large ratios of disadvantage students are unfairly penalized.

If any ethnic, socioeconomic or special education subgroup of 30 or more pupils fails to achieve adequate yearly progress, the entire school is judged to have failed.

"If you're in a district that is diverse, you have more opportunities to fail," said Bridgeport-Spaulding Community School District Superintendent Ricardo Medina.

"If you're in a homogenous district, you just have to focus on the score benchmarks."

All of the Saginaw School District's middle schools and many of its elementary schools are cited for improvement.

"At the end of the day, school districts have to make sure that all their schools are strong academically," said Saginaw School District Superintendent Gerald Dawkins.

"It won't be easy, but it's doable. As educators, this is what we signed up for; this is the work that we have to do."

— Corey Mitchell
Law pinches schools
Saginaw News
April 16, 2003


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