Media Archive

Federal law fails local schools

Article from The Piscataquis Observer, Vol. 165, No. 44, October 29, 2003

By Jessica Lee
Staff Writer

SADs 41, 46 targeted by No Child Left Behind Act

DEXTER and MILO Schools in two local SADs have been targeted as not meeting federal requirements for adequate yearly progress, according to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In SAD 41, the eighth - and eleventh - grade scores on the Maine Educational Assessment did not meet standards set by the mandate. In SAD 46, eighth - grade MEA scores did not meet standards.

As a result, Penquis Valley High Middle School and Dexter Middle School were included in the preliminary listing from the state on schools who had not made adequate yearly progress in math and reading, released earlier this month. That list included 143 Maine schools.

SAD 41 Superintendent David Walker has filed an appeal on that decision, based on concerns about the validity of the data used to make the determinations that students failed to make adequate yearly progress in grade 8 (reading and math) and in grade 11 (math).

In an Oct. 27 letter to me SAD 41 Board of Directors and staff, Walker outlined his concerns about the mandate, and frustrations with the evaluation process.

"Providing high quality educational programs in small rural communities as ours is a challenge given the growinging list of federal and state mandates that come with insufficient federal and state support," he wrote.

Historically M.S.A.D. # 41 has met this challenge through the hard work and determination of its staff, students and the community."

Walker noted that while per pupil costs are low in SAD 41, the communities "make an above average tax effort for the schools."

Walker added that the early release of the data "is counterproductive in our schools and our community." SAD 41 last year was placed on the priority school list for math, based on the grades of eighth graders taking the MEA tests. The designation was based on the percentage of students who did not meet the standards 61 percent. As a result, the district focused on bringing up the test scores of that group of students, while implementing new math programs at various grade levels.

The problem this year, and the reason why Walker appealed the designation, is the rules were changed. Instead of looking at the number of students failing to meet standards, those grading the schools are looking at the percent-age of students who met or exceeded standards.

In addition the schools are being graded on another level: students in the district answered a questionnaire in order to identify certain subgroups. The subgroups are based on race, disability and home Internet access and English proficiency, among other factors. Each subgroup can result in the failure of a school on two levels if 95 percent of students in the subgroup do not take the test, or if the proficiency level is not met.

Both Walker and SAD 46 Superintendent Lester Butler said that their individual school findings weighed largely on that distribution of students into subgroups.

Walker said the state's measure for students who "live in poverty" was whether a student had access to the Internet at home. This is an invalid measure, he said. While 85 percent of students surveyed had access to the Internet at home, 62 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunches. This skewed the results.

As most subgroups in rural Maine schools are small, in some cases the absence of one or two students from a test can make the difference between a school's failure to make adequate yearly progress or not, Walker said.

In SAD 41, Walker said that the eleventh grade overall met the performance standard in math, but the subgroup that did not have access to the Internet at home did not resulting in the overall citation.

In addition, he said, the identification for reading at the eighth-grade level is a result of a measure of partic-
ipation in the assessment by special education students. Although the grade level made the performance target, he said, less than 95 percent of special education students participated in the assessment.

The district continues to address the math proficiency of students at the eighth-grade level, following the grade's identification as a priority school in 2002. Walker cited frustration with the process and the unfulfillment of promises; while the state last year promised funding to purchase new math materials and assistance from a "distinguished educator," neither the funding nor the assistance has been forthcoming.

In Dexter, Superintendent Butler said the district is not appealing the finding that Dexter Middle School had not made adequate yearly progress in math.

According to Butler, 10 percent of students in the eighth grade either met the math standards or exceeded them just shy of meeting the performance standard of 13 percent.

"We missed it by 3 percent," he said. "That amounts to about 1.5 children."

He said the district implemented new math programs in grades 5 through 8, "which will assist us in meeting the standards" in coming years.

In addition. Dexter Middle School actually met the reading proficiency standard overall at the eighth-grade level, with 38 percent meeting or exceeding the standards. But, a certain unidentified sub-group did not pass, resulting in the school's inclusion on the list.

Both superintendents believe the NCLB Act does not meet the needs of schools and students in rural states, like Maine, and expressed hope that the legislature would alter the law to address the discrepencies between rural and urban schools.

Walker believes the No Child Left Behind Act, which evolved through the Title 1 program for disadvantaged students, may force schools to pay less attention to those who need it most. As the testing focuses on schools meeting proficiency standards, he noted, schools will begin to focus more on "students in the upper half of the partially meets group" so they will meet standards. Meanwhile, the students in the lower groups may be left behind.

And that. Walker said, goes against the heart and soul of the legislation.

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.