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Schools struggle to meet standards.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

Thousands of Oregon public school parents, students and employees may be in for a rude jolt Tuesday when the state releases the federal "report cards" under President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.

About one-third of the state's 1,260 schools - and nearly every sizeable high school - will fail to show "adequate yearly progress" as defined by the federal law, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

Schools in nearly every part of the state will get a black mark in one or more of the multiple categories scrutinized under the law.

"It's really all across the board," department spokesman Gene Evans said. "I think people will be surprised."

But no one should conclude that Oregon's public school system is failing or even faltering, education leaders insist. By the state's own tough standards, most schools are successful, they say.

The Bush education plan raises the accountability bar so high, though, that even a school like Eugene's Sheldon High School, whose high test scores and low dropout rate earned it an "exceptional" rating on the Oregon report card last year, will be hard-pressed to reach it.

Signed into law in January 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act targets the so-called "achievement gap" - the persistent performance gap separating white, Asian and affluent students from their African-American, Hispanic, Native American and poor counterparts.

Its chief components include annual testing in math and reading for students in third though eighth grade; ensuring every classroom has "highly qualified" teachers and aides; and holding schools accountable for making "annual yearly progress," or AYP, as it is quickly becoming known in education circles.

Schools that get federal Title I funds - earmarked for low-income students to boost reading and math - face successively harsher sanctions if they continue to miss the mark. In Oregon, 570 schools receive Title I money, including 12 in Eugene, nine in Springfield and six in Bethel.

State and local education leaders agree on two points. First, the law's goals are commendable. In fact, they align exactly with the top priorities of Oregon's schools chief, the Eugene School Board and scores of other education leaders across the state.

"It is morally the right thing to do," state Schools Superintendent Susan Castillo said last week at a conference of Oregon school administrators.

But the second point is this: The devil is in the details.

No Child Left Behind took center stage at last week's Confederation of Oregon School Employees conference in Eugene. For a lot of administrators, it was their first chance to absorb the complexities of the 1,100-page law and its far-reaching implications.

Oregon's plan for implementing the law was finalized in May, which didn't give administrators - let alone other school employees - much time to get up to speed before school was out.

"I think there are expected gaps (in knowledge)," said Bill Auty, director of assessment for the Oregon Department of Education and one of the key workshop leaders at the conference. "There are lots and lots of components."

The plan keeps Oregon's existing assessment system largely intact. The state administers annual tests that cover reading, writing, math multiple choice, math problem solving and science. Students are tested in grades three, five, eight and 10, although because of state budget cuts, not all grades were tested in all subjects in 2003.

Under No Child Left Behind, the state must expand testing to include grades four, six and seven by 2004-05.

This year, the required passing rates on the reading and math scores had to be 40 percent and 39 percent, respectively. That percentage will gradually rise until 2014, when the federal law says 100 percent of students must meet benchmarks.

All student sub-groups - Asians, African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, multiracial students, students with limited English proficiency, students with disabilities and low-income students - must hit the required threshold for a school to meet the AYP standard. A sub-group must have at least 21 students or else it doesn't count as a valid sample.

School attendance must be 92 percent, and the testing participation rate must be 95 percent. For high schools to meet AYP, they must have a graduation rate - in every subgroup - of 68.1 percent.

All told, schools must meet 60 criteria to pass muster.

"It's all or nothing," said Tom Henry, assistant superintendent for instruction in the Eugene district.

The law's harshest critics charge that it sets schools up to fail. Research psychologist Gerald Bracey, a keynote speaker at last week's conference, called No Child Left Behind a "weapon of mass destruction" and its goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014 an "absurdity."

"It doesn't make any sense to me unless they have some ulterior motive, which I think they do, and that is the destruction of the public schools," said Bracey, a part-time professor at George Mason University in Virginia. "I truly believe the idea is to accelerate the use of vouchers and privatization by labeling so many schools as failures."

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, also has taken aim at the law. The group plans to sue over the inadequate funding tied to the new mandates, and is pushing several amendments that would allow greater flexibility on some rules, including one that requires teachers to demonstrate knowledge of each core subject they teach.

Merri Steele, vice president of the Eugene Education Association, said few teachers would argue against the need for improvement and accountability. "But there are parts of the law that need to be adjusted to reflect reasonable expectations," she said.

A speech and language specialist at Harris Elementary, Steele pointed to the requirement that special education students show the same progress on tests as other kids.

"They need to show progress, but we also need to acknowledge that their progress is most likely going to be at a different rate," she said.

The NEA's stance prompted U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige last month to call the organization part of "the coalition of the whining."

Dan Langan, a spokesman for Paige, said critics need to give the law a chance. He called the notion that it is a right-wing attack on public education "ridiculous," and said improving schools is a vital national interest.

"The president and a bipartisan majority of Congress feel that the principles of this law are essential," he said. "No one said it would be easy, but then again our history of low performance in this country demanded action."

Elvia Williams, who chairs the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, seconds that. While she said she understands schools' dilemma over how to pay for the mandates, she said deadlines and sanctions are necessary after years of inaction.

"Our concern is if you don't put these things in place, the achievement gap will never be closed," she said.

School administrators in cash-poor Oregon would be far happier about rising to the challenge if the law included more federal money. Districts raided reserves, laid off employees and lopped days off the calendar to get through last year, and still don't know how much money lawmakers will give them this year.

Langan said the legislation is "amply funded," but few educators agree. Henry, Eugene's instruction chief, said that, while Title I funds have increased, so have the number of schools and students being served. Also, while new federal grants have been made, others - including one aimed at reducing class size - have ended.

"It's a bit of a shell game," he said.

Another troubling aspect to the federal law, Henry said, is the lack of consistency among states. In most cases, states were allowed to keep their own standardized tests, just as Oregon did, and they were given leeway on where they set the bar in the years leading up to 2014. California, for example, set this year's passing rate at 15 percent.

"In places like Oregon, where standards are more rigorous, you'll see fewer schools making AYP," Henry said.

Terri Schwartzbeck, a policy analyst with the American Association of School Administrators, has been tracking state plans, and agrees that Oregon's is comparatively rigorous.

"It's absolutely impossible to compare state by state," she said, noting that a couple of states have such low standards that almost all their schools will pass muster. "You really can't draw any kind of national conclusions."

The only existing method to accurately compare state-by-state results is through the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test given to a sample population in each state. But even if the NAEP points out disparities in state assessments - if, say, students in a particular state shine on state tests but bomb the NAEP - the federal government won't force states to raise their standards.

"One of the fears is that some states will start lowering standards, because some of the consequences are quite punishing," Henry said.

But Henry, like most other educators charged with making the law work, said he's trying to stay optimistic.

"I predict we'll iron this thing out and adjust standards across the country," he said. "We've got to. I don't know who's going to do it or how it's going to be done, but it's got to happen."

SCHOOLS THAT MISS THE MARK

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools receiving Title I funds are subject to graduated sanctions when they fail to show "adequate yearly progress" in consecutive years:

First year: No consequences.

Second year: Schools must notify parents; use Title I funds to allow students to transfer to another school; receive technical assistance and a chance at more federal money; implement an improvement plan.

Third year: Notify parents; offer transfers; and provide tutoring to low-achieving students using Title I funds.

Fourth year: Notify parents; offer transfers; provide tutoring; either replace some school staff, implement new curriculum and provide training, decrease management authority, appoint an outside expert to advise, extend the school day or year or restructure the school's internal organization.

Fifth year: Notify parents; offer transfers; plan for restructuring.

Sixth year: Either reopen as a charter school, replace all or most of the staff, contract with an outside entity to operate the school, undergo a state takeover, or reform by restructuring governance.
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Title Annotation:Local educators say the federal No Child Left Behind Act sets the bar too high; Schools
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 10, 2003
Words:1697
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