WASHINGTON – The State Board of Education unanimously approved revisions to No Child Left Behind rules Wednesday that would make it harder for schools to fall short of testing standards.
The two revisions, which must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education, would change the way school systems count poor, limited-English and special education students as well as the way in which test scores for those subgroups are measured.
State officials said that if these changes had been made in 2003, the percentage of state schools falling short of adequate yearly progress would have been 26 percent, instead of 36 percent, and the number of failing school districts would have fallen from 24 to nine.
But advocates worried Wednesday that the changes, while reasonable on their face, may go too far in insulating schools from accountability for legitimate subgroups.
Test scores for students in those subgroups are just one measure of school success under the federal No Child Left Behind act. If half the students in a subgroup are not “proficient” on their tests two years in a row, a school can be labeled as needing improvement. If the scores do not improve, schools could lose funding or face other penalties.
By 2013, all students will have to be proficient on the exams for the school and district to earn a passing grade.
But state officials said current rules are unrealistic. Under those rules, schools with five or more students in one of the subgroups can be held accountable for the subgroups’ performance. The same held true for entire school districts with five or more subgroup students.
Under one of the changes backed Wednesday, the state would only consider subgroup test scores if those students made up 15 percent of a district’s total student population.
Deputy State Superintendent Ron Peiffer said “having a fixed minimum subgroup just didn’t make sense” because districts like Montgomery County, with about 140,000 students, could fail if a subgroup with only five students in the entire county failed.
Peiffer said the changes will let the state and local districts do a “more accurate job” in evaluating which schools and school systems need improvement.
But Ricki Sabia, of the National Down Syndrome Society, said that the 15 percent threshold is too high.
“I think a percent is not a bad idea,” Sabia said. “But I think that the 15 percent is way too huge.”
The second proposed revision would count a student in only one of the three subgroups, even if that student met all three criteria. State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick said putting a student into more than one group is like “three strikes” against a school, since that student’s test score will be counted three different times.
Gary Heath, branch chief for the state Education Department’s planning division, said that had the second change been in place last year, 28 of the 45 failed schools in Montgomery County would have met the requirements.
Montgomery schools spokesman Brian Porter applauded the board’s decision because it will “make it more effective for parents, teachers and principals in assessing the true performance of their schools.”
Under the new rule, a student who met all three criteria would be classified first as poor, which consists of students who receive free and reduced meals. Special education students with limited English would be put in the special education group, while the limited-English group would have only those students with language difficulties.
“This keeps the maximum number of kids in the accountability system,” Heath said. “It is just not penalizing the school because they have children in all these areas.”
Sabia said that while the understood the “triple-whammy” some schools faced under the current rules, limiting children to one group or another is “going to undermine the purpose of No Child Left Behind.”
The state will submit the revisions to federal officials in May and is not expecting problems in getting approval.
“We are very well received by the federal government,” Grasmick said. “When we ask for something they know it’s not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but it has merit.”
But Jann Jackson, of Advocates for Youth and Children in Baltimore, said she hopes the feds reject the 15 percent standard for districts, a level she said is too high to hold school systems accountable.
Not addressed in Wednesday’s changes, she said, is the larger problem of a lack of federal funding to meet the mandates of No Child Left Behind.
-30- CNS 04-21-04