Wednesday, September 8, 2004
First, the good news. Jackson Public Schools announced last week that three schools—George Elementary, Murrah High School and Power APAC Elementary—all reached Level 5 for the 2003-04 school year, which is the Mississippi Department of Education's highest rating. George Elementary showed the greatest improvement, going from a Level 3 to a Level 5 school in one year.
Ten elementary schools received an "exemplary" Level 4 rating: Baker, Casey, Davis, Green, Isable, John Hopkins, Key, Smith, Sykes and Walton. Thirty schools were successful (Level 3).
JPS Superintendent Earl Watkins said: "These scores tell us that we've been right all along, our children can learn and can compete with great success against others. We will be using our most successful classrooms as learning labs in order to duplicate these obviously successful strategies."
The bad news is that two schools, French Elementary and Morrison Academic Advancement Center—a school for low-performing students that must, nevertheless, meet the same requirements as others—received the lowest ratings, Level 1, and thus have been designated "priority schools" by the Mississippi Department of Education. Under stringent federal rules, those schools will be in front of the line for closure if they do not improve.
Under "No Child Left Behind" rules, 100 percent of public-school students must meet or exceed the required proficiency levels of academic achievement by 2014 at their grade level, including Exceptional Education (special ed) students. The Mississippi Department of Education has established intermediate proficiency goals at each tested grade level and subject area.
One of the special difficulties of the federal mandate, conceived and pushed through Congress by President Bush, is that federal law also requires that 95 percent of nine student subgroups in each school be tested and meet the same proficient level as students who don't face the same challenges. The nine subgroups consist of: all students, students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students, limited English proficient students, Asian students, black students, Hispanic students, Native American students and white students.
That means that special-education students, or members of any of the subgroups, could cause an entire school to fail, if they are not able to meet the testing requirements. In fact, in 2003-04, eight JPS middle schools—Blackburn, Brinkley, Hardy, Peeples, Powell, Siwell, Whitten and Rowan—met NCLB testing proficiency requirements as a whole, but not enough of their special-education students passed muster when the test scores were disaggregated into subgroups.
That is, your child may have done wonderfully on his or her tests, and the school may have scored well overall, but if a subgroup of special-education children did not score high enough, the federal government deems your school a failure. Meet one of the booby traps designed into NCLB.
JPS explains it this way: Say your 13-year-old special-ed student is intellectually on a 5th-grade instructional level, but will be classified as 8th grade based on age. If the student takes the 5th-grade level test and scores proficient or above, he or she is branded "not proficient" under NCLB; likewise, if she takes the 8th-grade level tests and doesn't score proficient. She, and the school, lose both ways.
"Right now," the JPS Web site explains, "this high level of expectation is causing a lose-lose situation for the Exceptional Education students and for middle schools, which have the highest percentage of the district's Exceptional Education students. JPS will be working with all schools to design instructional plans so that all Exceptional Education students meet their grade level proficiency expectations."
Also getting bad news were several high schools—Forest Hill, Wingfield, Jim Hill, Provine, Lanier—that did not satisfy federal graduation rates and progress requirements. Under the guidelines of NCLB—an act originally designed to offer families of "failing" schools private-school vouchers until Democrats nixed that part—students in these schools "needing improvement" are now eligible for public "school choice," meaning they can transfer to other schools. "We are optimistic, however, that parents will look closely at the plans of improvement and special resources being offered at these schools—and choose not to exercise this option," Watkins said.
Another NCLB trap—and a very grave one in a bill touted as a way to help disadvantaged children do better academically—is that the act has never been fully funded, as was promised to reluctant members of the House and Senate to get them to support the high-stakes testing requirements for both teachers and students. "No Child Left Behind" has joined the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as an expensive unfunded federal mandate that is, in essence, passing along costs of expensive testing and other federal education requirements to states and local school districts.
The Bush administration, to date, has underfunded NCLB by $30 billion over the past three years. Programs for disadvantaged students have been undercut by $7.2 billion. Bush's 2004 budget called for $9.4 billion less than allocated by Congress.
Here's the headline of a Clarion-Ledger story today about test scores: "Results show Miss. must up test scores." Then the subhead: "No Child requires state to boost standards before September 2005" OK, then read the story itself (excerpted below). Where is the "... or what?" part? That is, the story never tells readers *what* happens if the schools don't raise their test scores under No Child Left Behind. Isn't this an important little tidbit of information, especially when the mastermind of the education bill is up for re-election??? Mississippi public schools will have to work a little harder this year to maintain or improve their rankings in the state's accountability system next fall. As required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the state must raise the standards higher the next time ratings ó from Level 1, low performing, to Level 5, high performing ó are announced in September 2005. In October, the state Department of Education will begin looking at the mathematical formulas so complicated that they are calculated through computer programs. The goal is to have the standards retooled for September 2005 ratings. Thanks, once again Clarion-Ledger, for helping us lay-folk understand complicated issues. Full story
Speak out for public education! Host, or attend, a local meet-up in support of education on Sept. 22: "On September 22, across the country, teachers, parents, and concerned citizens will meet in house parties, community centers, church basements, and school rooms to talk about the state of our schools and take action to ensure that all of our children get the best education we can deliver." Click here for Jackson locations. These meet-ups are organized by Great Public Schools, a coalition of groups banding together to make sure that no children are actually left behind. See a Mississippi fact sheet here