Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Schools reclassify students, pass test under federal lawSchools reclassify students, pass test under federal law

This is crazy! Looks like school-centered goals are undermining student-centered goals. I'm glad the Bee included the voice of a parent, shows how NCLB is effecting all stakeholders. Check out graphs demonstrating schools' classification breakdowns. -Patricia

By Laurel Rosenhall and Phillip Reese | Sacramento Bee
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Will C. Wood Middle School faced a vexing situation when last year's test results came out in August. Most students had met the mark set by No Child Left Behind. But African American students' math scores fell far short of it, bringing the school into failing status in the eyes of the federal law.

One hundred students were categorized as black when they took the test last spring. But if the school had fewer than 100 students in that group, their low scores wouldn't count. So Principal Jim Wong reviewed the files of all the students classified as African American on the test, he said, and found that four of them had indicated no race or mixed race on their enrollment paperwork. Wong sent his staff to talk to the four families to ask permission to put the kids in a different racial group.

"You get a kid that's half black, half white. What are you going to put him down as?" Wong said. "If one kid makes the difference and I can go white, that gets me out of trouble."

Over the past two years, 80 California schools got "out of trouble" with No Child Left Behind after changing the way they classify their students, a Bee analysis has found. The changes nudged their status from failing to passing under the federal law.

The state allows school officials to comb through test results every August, changing students' demographic information to correct mistakes that can happen, for example, when clerks register new students or when districts swap student files.

Thousands of schools make demographic corrections, and the majority have no bearing on their No Child Left Behind status. But the correction process may allow some schools to escape the scrutiny intended by No Child Left Behind, The Bee found.

The state doesn't verify whether the changes schools make accurately reflect the students they serve. And the point of No Child Left Behind lies in separating test scores by race – then demanding educators bring all children to the same level. The law says all major demographic groups – categorized by race, income, English fluency and disability status – must meet test score targets that increase over time. If one group doesn't meet the target, the entire school faces the stigma of low performance and a series of consequences.

Advocates see the consequences as extra help for struggling students – from after-school tutoring to more time in the classroom to a change in teachers. Many educators, however, view them as punishment.

Parents approved switch

The Will C. Wood parents agreed to put their children in a different racial group. Two were reclassified as white, and two as American Indian.

Sacramento City Unified officials say they have documentation proving the parents were on board with the racial reclassifications. But they would not share it with The Bee.

"With our data corrections, we're not looking for the numbers in the subgroup, we're looking at the accuracy of the data," said Associate Superintendent Mary Hardin Young. "We're looking for the accurate information first."

When the school's corrected test data came out in February, Will C. Wood appeared to have met all No Child Left Behind requirements. The school reported 96 African American students, instead of 100. Although math scores remained low in the smaller pool of black students, the school was not punished for their performance because the group had become statistically insignificant.

Even when a group is small enough to fall off the radar, its students still count toward a school's overall test scores. But lumping students of all backgrounds together has allowed schools to camouflage the scores of students they have under-served. For decades, schools were given a pat on the back as long as their overall test scores looked good – even though the scores of black and Latino children were typically far below those of whites. That's exactly what was supposed to change when No Child Left Behind became law in 2002.

"The accountability and responsibility inherent in that law, it's about having to teach kids, not reaching an arbitrary number," said Russlynn Ali, executive director of Education Trust West, a Bay Area group that advocates rigorous academics for disadvantaged students.

She said schools are violating the spirit of No Child Left Behind when they take advantage of ambiguous situations and change student demographics in their favor.

"This is deliberate gaming of the system, finding a way to shirk the responsibility to close the achievement gap," Ali said.

Wong said Will C. Wood is doing everything it can to help low-performing students learn math. About 100 kids a day attend free after-school tutoring, he said. If they stop showing up, the school calls home. Teachers have gotten extra training; students more computer help.

Many educators welcome the attention No Child Left Behind has brought to the performance of individual racial groups and say they strive every day to close the gap. But they also feel the system hammers them with arbitrary numbers: Even if student test scores improve – as they have at Will C. Wood – schools are punished if they don't meet specific targets each year.

"You're threatened that you're going to get fired, that your staff is going to get fired," said Wong, the Will C. Wood principal, explaining why he changed his students' demographic data. "It's very, very stressful."

There's a different stress for parents – worrying if their kids are getting the attention they need. Robbinceta Harris' son was one of the black students at Will C. Wood whose scores became irrelevant after the race reclassifications.

She said the school should be doing more to help students learn, not looking for ways to avoid the spotlight of No Child Left Behind.

"If they did it the right way, somebody from the outside would have been looking in and saying, 'Why aren't they passing?' " Harris said.

"They needed something."

Different stories told

The Bee analyzed two years of test data for roughly 6,000 California schools subject to No Child Left Behind – those that receive federal Title 1 funds for serving poor children. Eighty schools initially fell short of the law's test targets but met them after making demographic corrections. Of those:

• 12 schools changed students' race classification.

• 50 schools reclassified English learners as fluent in the language – or vice versa.

• Seven schools changed which students are considered disabled or economically disadvantaged.

• 11 schools changed student demographics in a way that rendered an entire group statistically insignificant, as Will C. Wood did.

All told, these schools reclassified 985 students, resulting in increased math and English proficiency rates. By making some demographic groups numerically insignificant, the scores of an additional 815 students were not counted as part of a demographic category.

Not all schools that made demographic changes end up doing better under No Child Left Behind. Compared with the 80 schools that improved their standing after demographic corrections, another 33 California schools saw their status drop from passing to failing after their changes.

Each school that made beneficial corrections had a different story.

In 2007, Main Avenue Elementary in Robla added one high-scoring student to the Latino category, boosting that group's score just past the proficiency benchmark.

Principal Ruben Reyes said the boy had erroneously been marked as living in the country less than a year, which meant his score wouldn't count at all. Reyes knew he had been here longer and filed a correction that added his score to the pool of Latino students.

The correction took the percentage of Latinos scoring proficient in English from 24.1 to 25.4, inching it past the 24.4 percent proficient necessary to satisfy the law.

Herndon-Barstow Elementary in Fresno reduced the number of English learners from 72 to 70, making that group statistically insignificant in 2007. Principal Melody Burriss said a few students were reclassified as fluent in English before spring testing, but the paperwork hadn't caught up with them.

Burbank changes defended

Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento made corrections to its English learner category two years in a row.

In 2006, Burbank went from 306 English learners to a corrected total of 304, raising the percentage of those students scoring proficient in English from 22.2 percent to 22.4 percent. The No Child Left Behind target was 22.3 percent proficient.

In 2007, Burbank lowered the number of English learners from 289 to 275, moving some students out of the category and adding in some high-scorers. The percentage of English learners scoring proficient in English increased from 19 percent to 22.5 percent. The No Child Left Behind requirement was that 22.3 percent be proficient.

Principal Ted Appel said most of the corrections were necessary because a large number of Hmong refugees had been put in the wrong grade when they arrived at Burbank as newcomers to the country. No Child Left Behind looks at high school students' test scores only in the 10th grade.

In other cases, clerks at Burbank had mistakenly failed to label some students as English learners even though documentation from their parents shows the kids spoke Mien, Hmong, Farsi, Spanish or Tongan at home.

Schools like Burbank that serve large numbers of immigrants are likely to correct their demographic data because those students can move in and out of various categories. Over the course of a school year, students can master English and move out of programs for non-native speakers.

Private firm checks changes

At many schools, students move in and out of special education. Electronic records become outdated. For those reasons, California will always need to allow schools to correct demographic information, said Rachel Perry, director of accountability for the state Department of Education.

Changes to students' ethnic categories are much less common, The Bee's analysis shows. But when it happens, state education officials don't check to see why, Perry said. They leave it up to a private contractor – Educational Testing Service – which performs minimal checks.

Appel, the Burbank principal, said the important thing is not whether schools are correcting data but whether they are helping students learn more.

At his school, test scores have gone up over the past five years – steeply in math, more gradually in English. After making data corrections this year, Burbank was removed from the list of schools facing No Child Left Behind's consequences.

"The way to get out is not by making data corrections," Appel said. "The way to get out is to improve student achievement."

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