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The Tally Ho

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

No Child Left Behind "on the ground"

I've attended six local school council meetings in the last 30 days, at six different schools. The No Child Left Behind Act has been mentioned in all of them. So before we go into tonight's domestic-policy debate, I thought I'd offer a few recent issues I've heard from Chicago's teachers and administrators.

But first, some excerpts from a recent Chicago Tribune article by Tracy Dell'Angela "City's schools get gold star; 74% improve" (158/218). IL students get tested using the ISAT (IL Standards Achievement Test) in grades 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8, and the PSAE (Prairie State Achievement Examination) in 11th grade. Most 3rd and 5th graders are meeting the state math requirements; the reading scores are still below the state's acceptable rating. The graphic shows a list of most-improved grade schools and high schools; for reference, the grade schools listed had between 51% and 64% of students meeting or exceeding state standards. The range is wider in high schools: between 40% and 73% of students met or exceeded standards on the "most improved" list. In order for a student to "meet standards", they must pass both the reading and math portions of the test. However, writes Dell'Angela, "Last school year, 365 of the city's 600 schools had to offer students the option to transfer to a better-performing school because they had not met federal academic goals for two years in a row." Transfer to where? If every school in the neighborhood is failing, there will be nowhere for the kids to go.

Anyway, concerns that I've heard in the last month:

  • The math is screwy. School H happens to have excellent facilities for special needs kids. Everything is accessible. Teachers are trained to help mainstream students. (I love this school, by the way.) It made the top 10 list of most improved schools. However, a lot of their students come from other neighborhoods, because of the accessibility thing. When schools report their test scores to NCLB, they are supposed to test 90% (?) of their students. But when School H tests their students from other neighborhoods, those students' scores go back to their neighborhood schools and that school gets credit for testing them, while School H does not. So, to calculate how many children got tested, the NCLB administrator took the number of test scores attributed to School H (the neighborhood kids) and compared it to the total enrollment at School H. So School H didn't make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the NCLB standards. They are trying to appeal, but they can't figure out where to direct their appeal.
  • Subgroups are tested inadequately. School J is a neighborhood grade school with a diverse population: recent influx of Somalian immigrants in a traditional Polish neighborhood with some Hispanic and white kids thrown in. The NCLB standards point out that each recognized subgroup has to pass a certain percentage of students for the school to make AYP (I think that no more than 35% of students can fail? But that sounds high). The test is given only in English, and is timed. The white and Hispanic kids, therefore, do markedly better than the Polish or Somalian kids. The ESL teachers are overloaded, trying to get the kids test-proficient in English by April. In the lower grades, it's possible. After about grade 5, there's not much hope.
  • No funding! This is everywhere. Afterschool programs, ESL programs, longer school days... NCLB is supposed to have funds that schools can draw from to help students, but the money has not come in for a year and a half. If a school fails three years in a row, they're required to offer tutoring to their existing students. Some schools are now forced to tutor kids, but don't have any funds with which to pay teachers or buy materials for that tutoring.

Please keep in mind that on its face, No Child Left Behind is a great program. Test the kids using existing instruments. Make sure that minority performance matches whole-group performance. Structure options for both the students and the schools if a school is failing. But in practice, the program sucks. Neither the structure or the money has been put in place so that schools know what to do or where to go if things are not right. During the school year, it's difficult for me to get enough time to the students because they have enforced reading hours and spend a month warming up for the ISAT. And because of this, the test scores are improving. But is the education improving? I don't think so.


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