Gazette opinion: Don't punish Montana schools with federal mandate

2011-07-20T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Don't punish Montana schools with federal mandate The Billings Gazette
July 20, 2011 12:00 am

Between the spring of 2004 and 2011, the percentage of Montana public school students testing “proficient” in reading jumped from 62 percent to 85 percent. In the same seven-year period, math proficiency rose from 57 percent to 68 percent.

The fact that reading skills increased 37 percent and math skills by 19 percent is cause for celebration. More Montana students are doing well on the annual test the state uses to measure achievement as required by federal law.

Pass/fail grades

However, the No Child Left Behind Law fails to recognize such progress. Instead, this federal law issues each U.S. public school and district a pass/fail grade. The legal measure is called “adequate yearly progress.” To achieve AYP, a school must have an ever higher percentage of “proficient” students, and it must meet the proficiency standards — not just for the total student population, but also in several subgroups, such as special education, low-income students and students whose first language isn’t English. The schools must test and report scores for nearly all students. Additionally, high schools must graduate 85 percent of students within four years of admission.

If any of those criteria aren’t met, the school fails.

Nevertheless, NCLB mandated that proficiency standards be boosted in the school year just ended to 92 percent for reading and 84 percent for math.

This higher standard would put an additional 128 Montana schools in the failing category. With the standards required in 2009-2010, 255 schools don’t meet AYP out of 821 total schools. With the federal higher standards, 383 would fall short.

Back in April, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau wrote to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, requesting that Montana be permitted to keep the same proficiency standards for 2010-2011 as it had the previous year.

On July 1, she received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education saying that Montana would forfeit some of its federal Title I funding if it doesn’t adopt the federal proficiency criteria by Aug. 15.

This week, Juneau was still awaiting clarification of what funding is in jeopardy and how much. She has also discussed “trying to find middle ground” with federal authorities.

Congressional inaction

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education told the Associated Press that he expects the matter to be resolved without sanctions. But if the state is penalized, the money would be withheld from the administrative portion of federal Title I funds — the 1 percent of funding that goes to OPI.

If Montana had 128 more schools labeled as failing to meet AYP, there would be no additional money to help them come up to standards, Juneau said. Yet the state would be charged with doing so.

The threat of NCLB sanctions makes no sense. The law is years past its intended reauthorization date with no congressional update. It needs to be significantly revised and Duncan himself has proposed major changes.

OPI is scheduled to announce 2011 test results the first week of August. The results will tell Montanans the proportion of students who scored at different achievement levels in reading and math in tests this spring. Montanans can review this public information and find out whether proficiency is rising or stalling in their own schools.

There is no benefit to Montanans — not to students or communities — in arbitrarily raising the “pass grade” so that 128 schools that passed last year will fail — even if they improved.

We call on Montana’s congressional delegation to help Juneau communicate with the U.S. Department of Education: Don’t penalize our schools for the sake of an outdated federal law.

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