Media Archive

State schools fail to meed federal goals

Article from Bangor Daily News, Saturday, October 25, 2003

By Ruth-Ellen Cohen
of the NEWS Staff

10 on list must allow parents option of transferring students

AUGUSTA - Ten Maine schools have been identified as failing to meet federal performance targets for two years in a row in reading and math, the Department of Education announced Friday.Another 143 schools preliminarily have been identified because they didn't meet the goals this past year.

This is the first year that states have had to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind guidelines which require that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. To gauge progress toward that goal, each state has established and must meet its own yearly targets.

For now, Maine is using the Maine Educational Assessment - a standardized test given annually to students in grades four, eight and 11 - to measure the progress of each school in the state. Down the road, local assessments also will be used, and beginning in 2005-2006, testing will be expanded to include grades three through eight.

Located in the central, northern and eastern regions of the state, the 10 "continuous improvement priority" schools were first identified a year ago for not meeting different federal guidelines. Though the guidelines changed this past year under No Child Left Behind, the schools are still being held accountable for their students' performances in both years.

Those 10 schools now must offer parents the option of transferring their children to another higher performing school in the district, if one is available. The state department of education also will assign a staff person to help each school develop an improvement plan. Federal funds could be provided to help purchase needed educational materials and other education experts could be brought in.

The schools on the longer "monitor status" list have a year to improve on any deficiencies that have been identified to avoid the same consequences.

Maine chose as its benchmark to meet No Child Left Behind the score achieved by students in the 20th percentile on the Maine Educational Assessment.

This benchmark, according to federal law, must rise over time until 2014. By then, all students are supposed to be meeting the same high standards.

Progress must be made not only on the school population as a whole, but in subgroups that include low-income students, students with disabilities, and racial and ethnic groups. In addition, 95 percent of students in each subgroup must participate in the testing or the school is designated as failing to make the target.

The state released the lists Friday during a news conference at the State House, ending weeks of speculation.

Commissioner Susan Gendron emphasized that the data reflect only "one snapshot of student performance at a given time."

Abiding by the new federal guidelines has been "a tremendously complicated and challenging experience," she said.

There are many ways that schools can fall short of their mark, and the state accurately predicted that about 20 percent of public schools would fail to meet the new federal goals.

Schools that don't make adequate yearly progress are subject to consequences that get more severe each year. The federal guidelines include forcing schools to provide tutoring, to put a new curriculum into place, and to restructure. Restructuring could mean replacing most or all of the school staff, reopening the facility as a public charter school, contracting with an entity to run the school, or having the state take over.

As the lists were presented Friday, the new federal law received its share of criticism. Rob Walker, president of Maine Education Association, said "standardized tests mandated from Washington with their accompanying rigid rules do nothing to help educators meet the individual needs of students."

And Deputy Commissioner Patrick Phillips said before the meeting that while the law has some benefits such as providing extra funds for improvements and "looking beneath average [test] scores" to examine subgroup performance, it's an arbitrary way of looking at school performance.

The overall performance of the schools with the lowest percentage of students meeting proficiency levels on the MEA might not be all that different from schools that aren't on the list. The differences could be as little as one percent, he said.

The designations were based on preliminary reports sent to all schools earlier in the month. Districts were asked to review and, if necessary, correct the data.

Many districts were identified in the preliminary data on the basis of not reaching the 95 percent participation rate in all subgroups, Gendron said.

As a result of the review, the initial number of districts not making progress declined from more than 200 to 143. Of the 143 schools, 35 were identified only because fewer than 95 percent of students in certain subgroups did not take the MEA.

Superintendent Robert Ervin said initially Bangor had five schools on the "monitor" list, but that after the school system corrected the data, four were taken off.

He also thinks the remaining school - the James F. Doughty School - could be taken off after he provides the state additional information.

David Walker, SAD 41 Superintendent said he was disappointed that Penquis Valley Middle School had been identified for not having made adequate yearly progress in grade eight reading and math and grade 11 math. It marked the second year the school didn't meet the federal standards.

He said he had "severe reservations about the validity of the data" and that wasn't given enough time to thoroughly review the data, to develop questions or to investigate discrepancies.

Like many other superintendents across the state, he also protested the use of home Internet access as a measure of poverty.

He said the school had improved greatly since the first year it was on the list and that if the standards hadn't changed the school would not have been on it this year.

Walker said the state department of education also hadn't yet made good on its promise to give the district $17,000 to support its improvement plan.

State officials said they were concerned about No Child Left Behind becoming an unfunded federal mandate.

Members of Maine's congressional delegation expressed various concerns about No Child Left Behind mandates in news releases Friday and vowed to look into the adequacy of federal funding.

Colleen Haskell, assistant superintendent in Moosabec Community School District, said the district had appealed the inclusion of Jonesport-Beals High School on the list for the second year, contending that the state may have incorrectly entered some data about Internet access.

She said she hadn't yet heard back from the department.

"This is really hard for schools. They work so hard," she said. After the newspaper story is published, she said she is concerned "kids will begin to feel badly about themselves."

Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the National Education Association, said the teachers union agrees with the goals of the federal law, such as high standards and accountability.

Yet, as states release information on the vast number of schools and school districts that are designated as needing improvement, it's clear that the one-size-fits-all system prevents a fair and accurate assessment of student progress, he said.

"It's an immensely complex system and there is huge variation state-by-state," he said. "It doesn't make sense."

In the long run, No Child Left Behind may prove to be successful as a way of making schools accountable, said Robert Cobb, dean of the University of Maine 's College of Education and Human Development.

But student performance is being measured before schools have had the chance to implement a standards-based approach to education, he said.

"This is having some very debilitating effects on teacher morale and the public confidence in the schools," he said.

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