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

Sunday, September 09, 2007

NCLB: They Hate It in Missoula, Too

The bureaucratic and pedagogical horrors created by NCLB are well-documented in urban school districts, but less has been written about sparsely-populated states like Montana. Here is a nice piece of reporting from the Missoulian on the unique nightmares imposed by NCLB in rural states (ht to Ken Bernstein):
By ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on No Child Left Behind test scores, which were released this week. On Friday, we looked at how Missoula schools fared, and the ramifactions of those test results. Today, we look at other schools in western Montana.

Montana's struggle to make adequate yearly progress on federal education standards is beginning to look like the kid staying after school writing 100 times, “I will finish all my homework on time.”

By one measure,

90 percent of Montana schools met AYP requirements last year on their No Child Left Behind reading and math tests. And 85 percent of the state's school districts cleared the bar.

But six of the state's seven big-city schools did not make AYP. Although just 62 of the state's 425 districts are on the “needs improvement” list, they represent 77,229 of Montana's 144,418 school children.

The difference points up one of the biggest controversies surrounding No Child Left Behind rules. Multi-building school districts like Missoula or Great Falls can have the large majority of their schools meet the federal guidelines while the district as a whole fails.

“In Missoula, if 27 more kids had made AYP in reading at Big Sky High School, we would not be talking about making AYP in reading,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch. “It seems awfully unfair to label a school as failing AYP when a small number of kids didn't do well on one test taken once a year. And they're your kids with disabilities.”

Big Sky did not make AYP this year, along with Lowell Elementary School. That puts them on a federal “watch list.” C.S. Porter and Meadow Hill middle schools have missed AYP two years in a row, and are listed as “identified for improvement.”

But Missoula County Public Schools and all its 8,753 children are labeled as “identified for corrective action” - the third level of federal sanction.

One of the first sanctions any school district missing AYP must incur is public notification of its status. This year, that's the case for the communities where 53.4 percent of the state's public school students live. District administrators must acknowledge the test score deficits and offer families the opportunity to transfer to another school.

In Missoula, letters have already gone home to Hellgate and Porter families. While the letters were being sent, Hellgate officials successfully appealed their test results because of record-keeping errors. As a result, Hellgate made AYP for 2006. That level of administrative busy work is another frustration for McCulloch.

“We're acutely aware of the foofaraw the schools have to go through,” McCulloch said. “There are things I would like to have done in the last five years, but our very small group of staff folks have to be working on the federal requirements. It's taken a long time to make folks 3,000 miles away understand a very large state with very few students and what we do here, whereas we could have been doing more in the schools.”

Among Montana's big-city districts, none missed making adequate yearly progress among their main student body. Like the fabled elephant chased by the mouse, the failure stems from often-tiny subgroups of students with special needs, low-income families, or other minority characteristics. If an insufficient number of those subgroup children don't pass the reading or math tests, or if less than 80 percent of the seniors graduate from high school, the whole school is sanctioned.

So although 88 percent of Libby High School's sophomores passed the reading test and 63 percent passed the math, the school got on the watch list because only 75 percent of the previous year's seniors graduated.

Lolo Elementary School District had 86 percent of its students pass reading and 81 percent pass math. It stumbled because its students with disabilities did not clear the bar.

That same population also didn't pass at Hellgate Elementary School District, but the district as a whole did make AYP. Superintendent Doug Reisig said his special-needs students showed enough progress from the previous year, the district qualified for a “safe harbor” exception from the federal sanction.

“To hold us accountable that all of our children will learn is a good thing,” Reisig said. “But to say they all will go from Point A to Point B at the same speed is unrealistic. Our kids with disabilities worked so hard to meet the threshold. For us to show that kind of growth is a credit to the parents as well as the teachers. But for bigger districts, it's virtually certain that every one of them will find their students with disabilities can't make it.”

Bozeman was the only Class AA school district to make AYP this year. Office of Public Instruction spokesman Joe Lamson noted that 92 percent of its students passed the reading test. But according to the current version of No Child Left Behind, that figure must be 100 percent by 2014. Seven years in the future, Bozeman would also be considered a failing school given last year's performance.

And the draft version of the federal law currently before Congress doesn't look any better. The tiny subgroups, 2014 deadline and testing sanctions all remain in place at the moment.

In addition, the draft bill takes away many of the tools upon which small states like Montana relied to measure small schools. Lamson said another proposal would require students whose first language isn't English to take tests in their home language. In Montana, that would mean creating reading and math tests in languages like Crow or Blackfeet.

“Neither one of those are written languages,” Lamson said. “And even though most of those students' predominant language is English, but they'd be required to take the test in Crow or Blackfeet.”

Nevertheless, not one state has turned its back on No Child Left Behind. In Montana, NCLB controls the purse strings to $148 million in federal aid for struggling learners annually. But rejection of the federal rules could trigger a domino effect endangering another $350 million in special education dollars, program grants and impact aid payments for federal lands, military bases and Native American reservations. Given that the state only spends about $700 million a year in Montana tax dollars on public education, that federal help can't be ignored.

But McCulloch's office lacks much power to enforce those sanctions. In more centrally controlled states, the superintendent of schools can fire teachers, take over management of buildings or close whole districts. In Montana, that power is vested in local school boards, not in Helena.

“I've had conversations with Washington where they've said to me: ‘You just need to change the Constitution,' ” McCulloch said. “I told them it would be easier to take red meat off the menu in Montana than to take local control out of the Constitution.”

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