Schools put to the test

Students in teacher Rick Thomas' third-grade class at Alachua Elementary School read from their textbooks and answer questions about the story "Ramona Forever" by Beverly Cleary on Thursday.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 2:41 a.m.
Some parents are in for a shock.
Starting this May, it's likely that parents of students at more than half of Alachua County and Florida schools will receive a letter telling them their school isn't as good as they think it is.
If many elementary-school parents so choose, they will be allowed to send their child to another school deemed more successful. Transportation will be provided and school rezoning is not at issue.
That's because President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act is redefining what it means to be a successful school.
The sweeping education bill, signed into law two years ago this month, is reshaping how U.S. students are taught and asking a lot more from states, schools and parents.
If parents don't know about the law yet, they will by the start of next school year.
It's the Bush administration's effort to improve education by holding schools accountable for student test scores in reading and mathematics, penalizing the schools that don't perform.
Call it the school-accountability movement gone national.
But federal accountability is different than state accountability of the past five years under Gov. Jeb Bush.
The Alachua County school district celebrated its best year yet under Gov. Bush's school grading plan in 2003 - 20 A's and 13 B's among 37 public schools graded.
But under the first year of No Child Left Behind, just four met federal standards. Like the state plan, the federal grading system is based on FCAT scores, but it judges schools differently.
"I think (No Child Left Behind) is a highly confusing piece of legislation," said Deputy Superintendent Sandy Hollinger, responsible for instruction in Alachua County schools.
Parents who believe their child's school is performing highly "probably (are going to) be surprised," she said.
"We have to explain to parents that we have a federal grading system that grades our schools differently than the state does," she said.
Already under pressure to meet various state benchmarks, the No Child Left Behind Act just adds to the strain on school district staff, teachers, parents and students, Hollinger said.
The law When approved by a bipartisan majority in Congress and signed into law, The No Child Left Behind Act was praised for its goal of closing the achievement gap between low-income and minority students and their peers. For the first time, federal dollars were tied to academic results.
No longer could schools hide the performance of their worst-off students in "average scores."
The law evaluates schools in as many as 45 areas, including the progress of students divided into subgroups: each of the five ethnic groups, the learning-disabled, limited-English speakers, and students receiving free or reduced-price lunch.
Florida's benchmarks for 2002-03 were that 31 percent of students score at or above grade level in math on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and 38 percent do so in reading.
A school must test 95 percent of its students and virtually all of its subgroups must meet the benchmarks, or it will not make "adequate yearly progress."
Statewide, the subgroups with too few students scoring at grade level in reading and math were blacks, the learning-disabled and limited-English speakers.
The benchmarks remain the same for this year's testing, then rise gradually for 10 years, reaching 100 percent in 2013-14.
No Child Left Behind most directly affects schools that receive Title I federal grants, aid given to schools - largely at the elementary level - with significant low-income student populations.
If a Title I school does not meet adequate yearly progress for two or more years, it is supposed to receive extra help, but progressively tougher sanctions also kick in.
After two years of falling short, schools are placed on the "needs-improvement" list, and their students may opt to transfer to a higher-performing school. The district must pay the transportation costs.
After three years of shortfalls, the right to transfer continues, but families also can request their share of federal money and use it for tutoring and other outside services. After five straight years, the school must be restructured using outside tutoring, experts and alternative plans for school operation that eventually could lead to privatization.
County schools After the first year under the law, some 87 percent of schools in Florida and Alachua County failed to meet federal standards, confusing to parents told earlier that so many schools are "A" schools.
It placed 16 of the district's 20 traditional Title I elementary schools on the watch list.
Depending on how their students perform on the FCAT this March, many or all of those schools could end up on the "needs-improvement" list.
Those are the schools whose parents will receive a letter informing them of their right to send their child to another "higher-performing" school of their choice.
The Alachua County school district already has begun preparing.
"We knew when we got the results last year, we were going to go into school choice," said Charles Hall, the district's director of Title I programs.
Parents' right to transfer cannot be denied because of the district's recent adoption of a rezoning plan to alleviate westside overcrowding, he said.
Besides charter schools, the only schools that fit the description of "higher-performing" this year are: Duval, Norton, Rawlings and Talbot elementary schools.
To pay for transportation, the district will set aside as much as 20 percent of the $6.5 million it receives for Title I grants, Hall said.
The district plan is to give parents who want to transfer a choice between two "reasonable" options.
"You wouldn't want to give someone in east Gainesville a choice of going to Alachua," he said.
But the district is hoping that more schools score well enough to meet adequate yearly progress, and that many parents don't take advantage of the school-choice option.
"I don't see punitive measures as very helpful," Hollinger said.
The Title I money set aside for transportation would be better spent on tutoring or mentoring programs to give the lowest-achieving children extra help, she said.
Critics, defenders Many educators have adopted the stance that No Child Left Behind has admirable goals, but does not provide the resources to achieve them.
Among the criticisms: The mandates don't come with enough money to pay for them. The emphasis on reading and math crowds out other subjects. The focus on worst-off kids leaves behind gifted children. The accelerated timetable for improving achievement is unrealistic.
The law's supporters counter that it's too early to judge how effective the law will be.
Federal school spending has grown to its highest levels ever, they say.
Supporters admit that requiring 100 percent of students to be on grade level by 2014 is an unreachable goal, but say it's necessary to set the bar too high rather than too low.
To them, No Child Left Behind is historic, representing the first real commitment to raising overall achievement and closing the learning gap that separates low-income and minority students from others.
But critics of the law are just as passionate. "The law is based on the (faulty) assumption that the people in those (underperforming) schools have adequate expertise and adequate resources and have chosen not to do anything," said Richard Allington, University of Florida education professor and reading literacy researcher.
The penalties associated with No Child Left Behind likely will increase the flight of experienced quality teachers and principals from underperforming high-poverty schools, fed up with being labeled as failures, he said.
"Why would you stay if you had seniority and could leave?" he asked.
Jim Brandenburg, principal of Alachua Elementary, said his 32 years of experience as an educator has led him to develop a philosophical attitude toward each new wave of educational reform.
"My experience is these things come and go," he said, adding that he favors testing, but not for the purpose of grading or penalizing schools.
"If we do a good job teaching reading, writing and math, it won't matter," he said.
Douane D. James can be reached at (352) 374-5087 or

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