Friday, November 23, 2007

Number of low-income schools 'needing improvement' rose in 26 states

Number of low-income schools 'needing improvement' rose in 26 states
By LEDYARD KING / November 14, 2007
Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON — About one-fifth of schools in the nation's poorest communities were flagged as poor performers last year, and more are expected to make the list as a 2014 performance deadline approaches under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The number of high-poverty, or Title I schools identified as "needing improvement" last year rose in 26 states and the District of Columbia, according to federal education statistics recently obtained by Gannett News Service.

Experts predict thousands more schools nationwide will stumble unless Congress changes the law's emphasis on test score proficiency as the sole way to measure a school's worth. No Child Left Behind requires every student — whether low-income, disabled or non-English speaking — to pass grade-level math and reading tests by 2014.

School officials say that's an impossible standard to meet because children vary in ability and background and there always will be some who struggle. Without greater flexibility to measure student growth, thousands more schools will be labeled as failing even if 99 percent of the kids at each school score well on standardized tests, they say.

"If we allow that to happen, we'll have a revolt in our nation," said schools Superintendent Jack Dale in Fairfax County, Va.

Signed by President Bush in 2002, the No Child Left Behind law requires states to test students on math and reading in grades three through eight and once in high school.

Schools not only have to meet overall achievement goals set by their state, they also must show that students in certain subgroups — those who are black, enrolled in special education classes or non-English-speaking, for example — are making adequate progress. If enough students in any subgroup don't score at grade level for two consecutive years, the school gets flagged.

There are more than 51,000 high-poverty — or Title I — schools in the country. According to the Education Department statistics, about 10,700 of those schools, or 21 percent, failed to meet the No Child Left Behind standard last year. That's up about 8 percent from the year before.

Students at schools that have not made adequate progress for at least two consecutive years are permitted to transfer to a better school. If a school falls short for at least three years in a row, students there qualify for free after-school tutoring.

Some Title I schools face closure or removal of staff if student scores don't improve over time.

In three states — Florida, Hawaii and Nevada — more than half the Title I schools were identified as below standard last year, according to the federal education statistics.

But experts say that doesn't mean those schools are inferior to schools in other states. It may simply mean those states hold schools to a higher standard.

Differences in state standards and the huge diversity in student populations make it difficult to compare states based on percentages of schools that miss the mark, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based think tank.

"The simple answer is to go to national standards and national tests, but the solution to one problem creates other problems," he said. "And the problem with national standards is: Who sets the standards?"

Congress is considering proposals to soften sanctions imposed on schools that miss the mark for one or two student groups.

How schools fall short

A school can miss making "adequate yearly progress" if:

Its students, as a whole, fall short of targets on state math and reading tests.
Individual subsets of students fall short. Those subsets consist of students who, for example, are low-income, don't speak English as a first language, have disabilities or belong to a distinct racial or ethnic group.
More than 5 percent of students eligible to take the tests fail to do so.

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