Mike Winerip on VA's NCLB woes...
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- Subject: Mike Winerip on VA's NCLB woes...
- From: "Sue Allison" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
- Date: Thu, 20 Nov 2003 09:32:28 -0500
November 19, 2003
Superior School Fails a Crucial Federal Test
By MICHAEL WINERIP
IN 1998, when Virginia introduced its new education testing and accountability system, the first year was a disaster. Only 2 percent of Virginia schools scored well enough on state tests to get a "fully accredited" rating.
"My jaw dropped," said Kirk Schroder, who had just taken over as state education board president. "With 98 percent not passing, we knew we had a serious problem - not just with the schools - with the accountability system. It was not reflecting reality."
So state officials modified the system. Instead of relying on an all-or-nothing pass/fail rating for a school, they distinguished among schools that met the proficiency goal (fully accredited); schools making good progress (provisional accreditation); schools falling behind (needs improvement) and schools in crisis (warning accreditation).
Mr. Schroder toured schools and listened to the criticism. "I had a vocational student tell me he was good at math, it was just taught differently for his trade," Mr. Schroder said.
Virginia approved 140 tests as alternatives to the state test. High school students who failed a test needed for graduation could take unlimited retests. "We wanted the test to be a remediation tool, not punitive," Mr. Schroder said.
None of this should imply that Virginia went soft on testing. As Mark Christie, who succeeded Mr. Schroder as state board president, said: "We still believe strongly in accountability and testing. Just ask the anti-testing crowd. They see us as the bad guys. We would not back off."
But what Mr. Schroder and Mr. Christie - both Republicans, appointed by Republican governors - had learned is that a good rating system can't be so rigid that it loses touch with reality.
"If you create a system that calls a good school a bad school, people will know and lose faith in accountability," Mr. Christie said.
That is precisely what they believe has happened with the federal No Child Left Behind law. "They haven't got the details right," Mr. Christie said. The federal accountability system, which mandates that all schools make yearly gains on state tests until every student in the United States is proficient in 2014, "is irrational and violates common sense," he said.
Mr. Christie tried negotiating with his fellow Republicans at the federal Education Department, pointing out that Virginia had taken years to get its system right, but he said there was no give. "You complain and they say, `That's the law.' So I say, `Go to Congress and change it.' They say they can't do it."
With the debut of the federal system, there are now two accountability systems in Virginia that frequently contradict each other. Hundreds of schools that received a top state rating failed the federal standard.
Take Tuckahoe Middle School in suburban Henrico County, the kind of school any child would be lucky to attend. The district has given every middle and high school student a laptop computer, 27,000 in all. Tuckahoe's test scores are among the best in Virginia, with 99 percent achieving proficiency in math, 95 percent in English. Its previous principal was the 2002 state principal of the year, and in 1996 Tuckahoe was named a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the federal Education Department.
Yet in September, Tuckahoe was labeled a failure under the federal system. With No Child Left Behind, you can have great test scores for the whole school plus every subgroup (poor, black, special education), but if you fall short of one federal standard - like number of students tested - you fail. No middle ground.
No Child Left Behind requires that 95 percent of students be tested; Tuckahoe tested 94 percent. Why? The school has a sizable number of immigrants - many from Bosnia - who do not know English well. Virginia law permits them to be exempted from state tests once, to give them time to learn English. Even if Tuckahoe had wanted to test them, the state had not developed a test for limited English speakers.
"It didn't make sense to have them take a test they couldn't understand," said Kurt Hulett, Tuckahoe's principal.
Mr. Christie, as board president, asked federal officials to let the state continue its one-time testing exemption for a year until an alternative state test was developed for immigrants. Federal officials would not budge. But by then, Mr. Christie said, it was June and schools had already followed the longstanding exemption policy for the spring tests. So, nearly half of Virginia's schools, many first-rate, were labeled failing.
Eugene Hickock, acting federal deputy education secretary, blames Virginia officials, saying they were warned long before June that the exemptions were not acceptable and dragged their feet. "They had plenty of time to make changes," Mr. Hickock said. The federal law, he said, presses schools to test children who were once overlooked and there are no plans to change it.
But wait. Whether the fault lies with federal officials or with state officials, weren't schools like Tuckahoe unfairly labeled failing? "You're right," Dr. Hickock said, adding, "the schools paid the price."
For Tuckahoe parents it was confusing; for the principal, humiliating. "At `back to school' night I talked about how great we'd done on the state tests," Dr. Hulett said, "then two days later the N.C.L.B. results were in the paper saying we failed."
Dr. Hulett doesn't believe that having two accountability systems will make his school better, but it has piled on the paperwork. He says that one of his two English-as-a-second-language teachers, Michelle Abrams, will miss a week of classroom time this year to attend seminars on the new regulations.
With holidays approaching, Tuckahoe parents have been sending in notes, saying their children will be missing a few days for family trips and asking teachers to send home the work they'll miss.
"I believe that's healthy for families to do," Dr. Hulett says. But he now feels obliged to tell them that if Tuckahoe doesn't meet its average daily attendance goal of 94 percent, it will again be labeled a failing school under the federal system.
"I listen to myself," Dr. Hulett says, "I can't believe what I'm saying."
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