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School reform raises stakes

Tuesday, September 9, 2003

State officials have called it the 800-pound gorilla that can't be ignored.

Educators say it's as useful as putting a Band-Aid on a headache.

Whatever the case, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 packs a punch unlike any other education reform ever handed down by the federal government, and its demands are likely to hit local schools right in the gut.

"This thing is so big, so new and so different that it's going to be very hard for schools to implement," said Jim Morris, director of public information with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

NCLB is 670 pages' worth of explicit requirements overhauling everything from student achievement and teacher quality to parental involvement and school prayer. The law also carries unprecedented consequences for schools that don't live up to expectations.

One of those expectations is that every U.S. school have all students, including those who have disabilities or don't speak English, scoring at proficient level or higher on annual state assessments by 2014.

It's a requirement that local educators say is unreasonable and misguided.

"Can local farmers guarantee their crop is going to be perfect? No. It takes rainfall and sunshine," said Cape Girardeau superintendent Mark Bowles. "We're in the same boat. There's so much we don't have control over."

Like it or not, if schools don't make "adequate yearly progress" on the annual tests as required under No Child Left Behind, they face penalties as stiff as allowing students to transfer to other schools, replacing teachers or turning control over to the state.

States have set benchmark goals to help schools gradually work toward the 2014 objective of all students scoring proficient or above in communication arts and math.

To meet adequate yearly progress goals in 2003, school districts in Missouri must have 19.4 percent of students scoring at proficient or above in communication arts and 9.3 percent scoring at proficient or above in math on the MAP tests.

Not only must entire school districts make the percentage goals, but individual schools within each district and various subgroups in each school must also meet the standard.

Subgroups are broken down into categories by race, learning disabilities, free and reduced lunch program participation, and students whose first language is not English.

Penalties increase

Earlier this month, DESE revealed that 1,033 schools in Missouri did not make the goals in either communication arts or math this year, the first for the requirement. Ten local schools were among those who did not make it.

There are no penalties for not making the goals for one year, other than receiving a "needing improvement" label from the state. However, in the second year, and every consecutive year thereafter, consequences grow more and more severe.

Penalties only apply to schools that receive federal Title I funding, a voluntary program that provides billions of dollars to states each year to help educate low-income students.

The Jackson School District has no totally Title I-funded schools, but does have two elementary schools that do receive partial funding and are therefore susceptible to penalties. However, both of those schools -- South and Orchard elementary schools -- made their testing goals in 2003.

In Cape Girardeau, three elementary schools and Central Middle School participate in Title I. Under the state's current testing requirements, fifth- and sixth-graders at the middle school are not required to take the annual MAP test, so the penalties have no bearing at that school.

But three of Cape Girardeau's five elementary schools -- Blanchard, Jefferson and Franklin -- did not make percentage goals in one or both of the required test subjects this year.

Next year, if these schools do not meet the adequate yearly progress goals again, parents there will have the option next fall of transferring their children to a better-performing school in the district.

In this case, parents could move students to Alma Schrader or Clippard elementary schools, since both of those schools made their goals this year.

'The teachers are great'

Although district officials say they don't think many students will transfer, parents in the elementary schools that did not make the goals have varied opinions.

Six out of 10 parents interviewed Friday as they picked up their children from Blanchard, Franklin and Jefferson schools said they would not consider transferring their child if it became an option.

"There's no way I'd take my kids anywhere else," said April Bryant, who has three children at Franklin. "My kids have been here five years, and the teachers are great."

Jason Amann, whose daughter is a second-grader at Blanchard, said a school shouldn't be judged by a single year's test scores.

Ultimately, Amann said, students do well academically when their parents take an interest in schoolwork.

"The kids are only as good as the parents helping them," Amann said.

But depending on individual experiences at a school, some parents would welcome school choice.

"I think my kids would get a better education somewhere else," said Arrawanna Rosenthal, who has a daughter in fourth grade at Franklin. "I don't think I'm the only parent who feels that way either."

Although the penalties for missing MAP testing goals only apply to Title I schools, there is still an incentive for districts to improve non-Title I schools.

MAP scores are already an important part of the state's accreditation system, known as the Missouri School Improvement Program.

Beginning in 2006, DESE has plans to add adequate yearly progress goals to the Missouri School Improvement Program accreditation requirements, which means schools would not be able to maintain accreditation without making AYP.

Districts with only one building for each school, like Scott City, Nell Holcomb and Delta, are not susceptible to the AYP transfer penalty.

If a district has only one elementary school and that school does not make adequate yearly progress for two years, there is nowhere else within the district to transfer to, and therefore the penalty is moot.

Those schools are, however, subject to the other consequences if the percentage goals are continually not met.

cclark@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 128


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