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Tests, Not Schools, Are Failures






IT LOOKS LIKE TESTS, NOT SCHOOLS ARE REAL FAILURES
St. Petersburg Times -- June 18, 2004
by Mary Jo Melone

Lynn Rattray, principal of Bellamy Elementary School in Town 'N Country, moves through her day with that classic piece of wisdom in her head: She tries to control what she can and lets go of the rest.

At the moment, Rattray is trying to do her best not to tie herself in knots over the rating her school earned under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Mind you, this is a school that has, for three years straight, earned an A from the state based on its FCAT results.

Yet when it came time for the federal rankings, which are based on a separate analysis of the FCAT results, a politically induced case of cognitive dissonance resulted. Bellamy flunked.

Lynn Rattray is a veteran school administrator. She picks her words carefully. So she won't say bluntly what she thinks of the federal test results.

I will.

They're absurd.

Bellamy failed because its fourth-graders didn't do well enough on the FCAT writing test.

That sounds a legitimate concern. Look more closely, and you are reminded of just how much figures in black and white can mislead.

This year, 89 percent of Rattray's fourth-graders met or exceeded the state standards on the writing portion of the FCAT.

Under the rules, Bellamy would have passed under the No Child Left Behind Act if 90 percent of its fourth-graders hit the FCAT mark. Just 1 percent more. A breath of a difference.

All 128 fourth-graders took the writing test at Bellamy. One percent of that is 1.28 students. I'll round that up to 2.

In other words, if just two more Bellamy fourth-graders had met or exceeded the FCAT writing standards, Lynn Rattray would be grinning from ear to ear. Bellamy would have gotten a passing grade under the No Child Left Behind Act.

There's another problem with the federal rating system. It is supposed to measure the progress of students. According to Rattray, it doesn't.

Again, take the example of the fourth-graders' writing results. Bellamy was deemed a failure because its writing results dropped this year from last. But last year's fourth-graders were fifth-graders this year. The writing skills of the fifth-graders were not tested this year - the writing skills of a new batch of fourth-graders were. The comparison was not apples to apples.

Lynn Rattray describes herself as disappointed and frustrated over this bureaucratic mish-mash brought on by the No Child Left Behind Act. I don't know how she puts up with strangers from Tallahassee and Washington breathing down her neck.

The bad federal rating at Bellamy is particularly insulting because this school has achieved so much against the odds. It earns top state FCAT rankings even though most of its students are poor. While black children often don't do as well as white children in school, there is little performance gap at Bellamy. Clearly, this is a school that breaks the mold.

And clearly, Lynn Rattray does her best to take the long view. Whether we ever get control over the rush to measure school performance every which way depends on the politicians we elect. In the meantime, the two Bushes can promulgate confusing rule after rule. That won't change how Rattray leads her school. As she put it, "It doesn't drive our curriculum."

The other day, when the gap between the FCAT and No Child Left Behind was on the news, a casual glance would have had you believing that there was some big story here, but along the old plot line: Florida schools, once again, are declared a joke.

The experience at Bellamy - and there are other schools like it - indicates that is simply not true.

It's hard to miss the irony. The people who want so much for the schools to improve are the very people creating an impression that they can't.

This surely isn't what we mean when we talk about school reform. Reform overkill is more like it.



http://www.sptimes.com/2004/06/18/Columns/It_looks_like_tests__.shtml