"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, August 09, 2007

How NCLB Can Fail Thee--Let Us Count the Ways

From the Huntsville Times:
Wednesday, August 08, 2007 Huntsville Times

New local scores raise as many questions as they answer

Any system that measures a public school is only as effective as its ability to show a parent easily and clearly whether his or her child is getting a good education.

Yet how many parents feel comfortable with the federal government's No Child Left Behind system for gauging school performance here?

Most local schools that had fallen short in previous years in terms of test scores met the mark this year. Yet 11 schools - plus the city alternative school - in the three systems didn't make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) this year under the criteria. Only three didn't make AYP last year.

But look at how the scores affect some individual schools:

Westlawn Middle School would have made AYP if two more white students had shown up to take the state math exam - whether they passed it or not.

Butler High School improved in reading and math but missed AYP because the arbitrary graduation rate wasn't high enough. "Arbitrary" is the right word here. Since the state allows students to drop out at age 16, how can Butler forcibly keep them in?

And at Bob Jones High School in Madison, either 99 percent of the students took the state reading exam and only 79 percent took the math exam or the Principle of Bureaucratic Bungling exerted itself and somehow about 100 juniors weren't counted.

Throughout the three systems - but particularly in the city - you can find assessments that tend to show schools are improving but other categories where they are dragged down.

It's a case of things getting better but getting worse. Who designed this system? Yogi Berra?

A problem is the all-or-nothing cumulative scoring on the 39 different goals that the federal rules can require schools to meet. That, as Huntsville Superintendent Ann Roy Moore argued, is unfair. "If you make a percentage of your goals," she said, "you should get credit for it."

But at Butler, where 92 percent of the goals were met, the results are the same as if a great many of the goals weren't. Students can now transfer from Butler - and four other Huntsville city schools - because of a history of not meeting all the criteria.

Still, things are better in one sense: "This time we have to send out five choice (ability to transfer to other schools) letters," said Moore, "whereas last year we had to send out 18." So is public education here better or worse?

For that answer, parents have to go beyond the scores of schools and into individual classrooms - and get to know teachers and their expectations of students. Those have always been parents' best gauges of what kind of education their children are getting.

As things stand, the No Child Left Behind scoring system may offer some insight into a school's strengths and weaknesses, but it's a far cry from the accurate snapshot it is supposed to give. In fact, you can take this year's scores and point to significant progress by administrators and teachers in all three systems.

If there's a reason to test schools - and there is - this one's scoring factors obviously need tweaking. But no system is going to be able to supersede a strong parent-teacher effort to educate children at the highest level possible.

By David Prather, for the editorial board. E-mail: david.prather@htimes.com

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