Unrealistic goals?

Published 3:42 am Monday, January 22, 2007

By By Lisa Tindell and Kerry Whipple Bean
When Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act for U.S. schools five years ago, it also passed regulation of that act on to the individual states.
Alabama - one of the first states to submit its plan for enforcing the new law - was strict in its interpretation of No Child Left Behind: By 2014, 100 percent of the schools are to have 100 percent of their students achieving all of the academic goals the state set out.
And that's not sour grapes, he said. For nearly every school, reaching 100 percent success is a mathematic improbability.
How it works
No Child Left Behind tracks test scores and performance among different subgroups, including race, gender and socio-economic status. The intent was to reach all students and prevent the neediest children from falling through the education cracks.
Schools in Alabama must reach certain goals for each subgroup - and must show improvement toward those goals each year. That &#8220adequate yearly progress,” or AYP, is tracked in several different areas, from academics to attendance to graduation rate.
If schools don't show improvement over two consecutive years, they are labeled &#8220in school improvement.”
Nearly all of Escambia County and Brewton City schools achieved AYP last year.
With that greater accountability, however, comes greater responsibility for teachers and administrators.
Although teachers and students are becoming accustomed to the paperwork and testing involved in the program, there is a certain amount of stress involved in maintaining forward momentum, said Mary Bess Powell, assistant superintendent for Escambia County Schools.
The paperwork involved in the accountability is necessary to find out who has achieved the objects and where deficiencies exist, she said.
The tracking process is an important part of the plan, Escambia County Superintendent Billy Hines said.
Many schools - especially those that joined the Alabama Reading Initiative in its early stages - had already begun some of the teaching and testing changes No Child Left Behind has spawned, Smith said. And soon Alabama will add a math and science initiative to schools' repertoire.
Even with the added programs and regulations, Smith said, teachers are rising to the task.
Funding issues
While teachers focus on educating students, administrators sometimes must find new money for the programs they need.
Powell said statements by officials indicate that the funding for the program is in place.
Supplemental funds in the coffers for Escambia County schools require a specific amount be set aside for individual areas mandated by the NCLB program.
Powell said those required set-aside funds sometimes sit dormant because of the way the law is written.
Smith said he wishes the law and its regulations focused more on helping schools find the right teaching strategies rather than scores and results.
Apples to oranges
It's difficult to compare Alabama's rate of success with any other state - no two states interpreted the law the same way, Smith said.
Each state set its own goals and regulations to meet the federal standard. Alabama opted for high standards - and that's certainly not a bad thing, Smith said.
For one thing, he said, special education students' scores and statistics count toward the school's overall goals - including graduation rate.
And for some special education students, graduation is not likely, Smith said.
Schools that get labeled in &#8220school improvement” are not necessarily teaching or performing badly, Smith said.
Under the new guidelines, the state got permission to count lower end scores as &#8220partially proficient.”
But in reality, as schools get closer to reaching all of the goals, improvement is harder to come by. And if they don't see higher scores, they can go into &#8220school improvement.”
Over the years, even the definitions for &#8220special education” students have changed, Smith said. Fewer students now qualify for that extra attention, but the school needs to serve the same number of students in different ways.
What's next?
Hines and Smith agree that the intent of the law is good - and No Child Left Behind has meant huge improvements not only for local schools but for schools across the country.
And while Congress is due to reauthorize the program, Smith doesn't expect any changes. Along with the procedural problems the act raises, it has also created some political problems.
But problems aside, school officials said No Child Left Behind has given the schools an opportunity to track improvements in student performance as a result of the curriculum now in place.
With those improvements come additional responsibilities.

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