Tuesday, August 07, 2007


All right, so I've been harping on No Child Left Behind for years now. Here are some of the problems I saw back in 2003-- nothing that's happened since has changed my mind on the subject.

(News-Herald, August 2003)
Folks in Oil City were dismayed this summer to find some of their schools on the state’s Big List of Naughty Schools, and in fact there are several county schools in the same boat.

What are we paying these administrators for anyway, came the cries of protest. Well, if you’re surprised when your school makes it to the failure list, you haven’t been paying attention. Your school, and everybody else’s, is supposed to fail. That’s what the law is for.

Let’s review. No Child Left Behind is a crock. It is a cruel and cynical joke on the American people, designed to dismantle public education and make it easier for the rich to send Chip and Tiffy to private school (where they don’t have to take the PSSA) and still afford that summer in Bimini.

It bears repeating until everybody finally gets it: every single public school in America will eventually be on the failing schools list, because under NCLB, 99% success will be considered failure. It’s not a matter of if your school will be “in trouble”—only when. Districts can postpone it, but not avoid it.

In Pennsylvania, a school can end up on the list for any one of three reasons. 1) Whole or part of the school’s population didn’t meet the year’s testing standard. 2) Fewer than 95% of students took the test. 3) Not enough students attend and/or graduate from the school.

Let’s look at these in reverse order.

Attendance and graduation rates are fairly straightforward measures. Nothing too tough there.

95% of students taking the test. More of a challenge. The government is adamant (to the point of actually putting some money where its mouth is) that it wants class sizes in the 15-18 range. But if a class has 18 students in it, 17 students equal 94%. If Johnny is absent on test day, his school fails.

And the state says that if Johnny’s family has religious objections to taking the test, Johnny doesn’t have to take the test. But he still counts as absent, and the school fails.

The achievement level is the kicker in all this. The state has set a benchmark for each year that each school must meet. In the commonwealth, that’s based on achieving an 80% on the PSSA test of reading and math.

But we aren’t just looking at the whole school population. Any sub-group larger than 40 is counted on its own. So if your school has forty Inuit students, or forty students whose first language is Swahili, or forty students who are blind and deaf, those students are counted separately from the whole school.

For many schools, the significant group will be special needs students. Law requires that these students receive instruction that is adapted, modified to compensate for their particular learning disabilities. The law also requires them to take exactly the same PSSA as everyone else.

So if you have a learning disability that makes it hard for you to do math, the state requires your teacher to slow down your math class so that you can get it. But the state also requires you to achieve an 80% on the math portion of the PSSA (including the sections dealing with algebra and calculus).

But that ‘s not the best part. The results for the sub-groups override all other results. So if too many of the 40 Inuit students in my school fall below the 80% mark, my school goes on the list. Doesn’t matter if the rest of the school tests out 100% at genius level; the forty Inuits decide whether we’re on the list or not.

Franklin and Oil City Middle Schools are perfect examples of this feature in action. They’re on The List because although each school’s overall performance was excellent, each has a subgroup of over forty economically disadvantaged students who took the test and didn’t quite make it up to the cut. (One might think that the logical next step would be to target this group for more intense instruction, except that, by law, no one can know who those economically disadvantaged students are.)

What comes next? Well, Hasson Heights Elementary was on the Very Naughty List for the second year (though the state neglected to tell them that they were on the list the first time) so the law says those parents would have been offered choice. Everybody else has to show the state how they’ll improve.

Oh, but one last wrinkle. All of the state’s information about the school is based on information from the 00-01 and 01-02 school years. That’s means Harrisburg wants to see each district’s plan for improving schools in 02-03 --- the year we just completed.

Harrisburg says that only by aggressively pursuing an audacious plan can we hope to make schools perfect. Right. This from the folks who can’t even pass a budget. Happy new school year, indeed.

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