EDUCATION

As NCLB deadline gets closer, more schools look at shrugging off compliance

2010-11-28T00:15:00Z 2010-11-28T06:55:03Z As NCLB deadline gets closer, more schools look at shrugging off complianceBy ROB ROGERS Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
November 28, 2010 12:15 am  • 

The moment came during a board meeting last month.

Billings School District 2 trustees were listening to a report on No Child Left Behind compliance, hearing about which schools had the requisite percentage of children testing at grade level in math and reading, required by the 2002 federal law.

The report was something of a mixed bag. In some cases, white students were performing better than their minority counterparts and students from more affluent homes were doing better than those from poorer families.

But taken all together, 89 percent of Billings students were reading at or above grade level and 74 percent were doing math at that same level -- a good step above the 83 percent required for reading and the 68 percent required for math.

And that's the problem, trustees were told. Starting next year, the requirements jump significantly.

Next year, 92 percent of students will have to be reading at grade level and 84 percent will have to be performing in math. The district isn't up there now and probably won't be when it comes time to report its data next spring, the board was told. 

The fact that every student — 100 percent of them — will be required to test at grade level or above in math and reading in 2014 seems as out of reach as the moon.

Asked by the board for his perspective, Jeff Greenfield, president of the Billings Education Association, the district's teacher's union, spoke up.

"In a couple of years, no (school) will pass," he told them.

The impossibility of having every student test proficient in reading and math is being accepted more and more within the education community.

"In some states, NCLB is becoming irrelevant," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center for Education Policy in Washington, D.C. 

Many educators simply believe No Child Left Behind has run its course.

The law was born in 2002, a Bush administration initiative that requires schools to ensure that every child regardless of background, race or disability tests at grade level in reading and math by 2014.

Each state was left to set its own criteria and path for getting to 100 percent. Each year, schools are required to reach certain benchmarks, known as Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP.

Schools that fail to reach those goals face sanctions. They start small, like letters that go home to parents informing them their school failed to make AYP and their child has the option to go to another school in the district. At the far end, failing schools can see their staff fired or their principals removed. Schools that show no improvement year after year can be shut down altogether.

For example, high schools in Oakland, Calif. and throughout New Jersey, have been closed and reopened with new staff. No school in Montana has been shut down due to NCLB failures.

Denise Juneau, Montana's superintendent of schools, praised the law for its goal of ensuring every child gets an adequate education but said the law's lack of flexibility undermines its primary objective.

"A quality education is not defined only by one test given on one day of the school year," she said. "Most educators take a much broader look."

The structure of No Child Left Behind requires states to set their own definition of proficiency, meaning a student reading at grade level in one state may be reading two grades behind in another.

The requirement that all students test at grade level or above in math and reading is broken down to apply both to the school as a whole and to its smaller subgroups based on ethnicity, disability and family income.

If one subgroup fails to meets its proficiency goal, the whole school fails to comply with the law. A subgroup must have at least 30 students.

"Parents have to understand that NCLB's accountability is very strict," Jennings said.

NCLB's big flaw, he said, is that it doesn't differentiate between "pin-pointed problems and widespread issues."

Montana is part of a coalition of other rural, Western states that are petitioning the federal government for more flexibility in federal education law.

The idea, Juneau said, is to say to lawmakers, set the standards but give us the flexibility to get there.

"It is a challenge," said Greg Gallagher, director of standards and achievement for the North Dakota Department of Education.

Like Montana, North Dakota has a number of small, rural schools. Gallagher said regardless of the goals, the process that schools have gone through to reach 100 percent proficiency has yielded impressive results.

"We have seen progress in overall achievement rates (across the state)," he said.

Schools that habitually struggle and once scored proficiency rates in the teens have jumped to rates in the 50s and 60s, he said.

Jumps like that don't just change a school's academic profile, it transforms the way teachers look at their students and the way students look at schooling.

Suddenly, success seems possible, he said.

"When you can transform an institutional culture you have changed the world, so to speak," he said.

Juneau likes that the law has fostered accountability among school districts.

"It did force educators to look at data," she said. "That has been a great thing for public education."

Billings School District 2 Superintendent Keith Beeman, who started with the district in July and came to Montana after a decade in California, agreed.

"It really did a great service to education," he said. "It brought accountability to the local board room."

Still, with all its positives, they openly admit 100 percent proficiency isn't a reality.

"Will not happen," Juneau said.

The federal government relies on individual states to enforce No Child Left Behind.

The law's harshest sanction, shutting down a failing school, is a real fear for some as 2014 approaches and proficiency targets inch closer to the 100 percent mark. As more and more schools fail to reach the proficiency targets over the next three years, Juneau, whose office enforces NCLB for Montana, said she has no plans to take such draconian measures.

Instead, her office will continue to work with struggling schools to make sure they're getting the resources they need and that they continue to improve.

Beeman saw schools shut down by the state for failing to reach NCLB targets when he was in California.

And while he's happy to see less stock put into NCLB requirements, he said schools are still charged with reaching and educating every student, regardless of what laws come out of Washington D.C.

"Good schools districts have not relaxed," Beeman said. "They realize there's much more to the education of students than an (Adequate Yearly Progress) indicator."

The Obama administration has begun to craft a reauthorization of the law that would throw out strict accountability like the proficiency targets. Instead it would focus on measurements that show whether or not students are ready for the workplace or for college when they graduate from high school, Jennings said.

Strict accountability would be reserved for the bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools, he said.

Officials at SD2 point to programs that have long focused on preparing students for career and college upon graduation.

"I think we're ahead of the game," said Scott Anderson, referring to SD2's Career Pathways program.

Anderson is director of high school education for the district. He said the challenge for educators is finding the right approach for each student, something he believes SD2 has done.

Beeman agreed.

"The district does well focusing on the individual child," he said. "They are perfectly imperfect and that's the beauty of it."

Jennings, as a policy expert, likes the approach of focusing on the end result and pouring resources into low-performing schools sitting at the bottom.

"It's a starting point to discuss what should be done," he said.

 

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 657-1231.

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