Pam Jelinek almost took her son, a freshman at Langley High School, out of public school because she was afraid he would not be able to pass the math Standards of Learning (SOL) test required to receive a diploma. He proved her wrong and passed the test for the first time last year.
"At least now I know he'll qualify for the modified diploma," Jelinek said.
Her son, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder among other disabilities, has floated back and forth between full-inclusion classes at his base schools and self-contained classes at special-education centers since he began his academic career. Because of his disabilities, including vision problems, he has difficulties taking standardized tests, which Jelinek says is one of the main flaws of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The act measures success of individual schools, as well as the school system at large, based primarily on standardized test scores. In Virginia, that measure is the SOLs, which are administered in third, fifth, eighth grades and as end-of-year tests for selected high-school courses.
"Standardized tests don't do that and that's all No Child Left Behind is, a bubble test."
THE FLAWS of the act were illuminated last week with the release of the second annual report, measuring how schools fared in meeting the act's requirements. Statewide, 55 percent of the commonwealth’s 1,822 public schools, and only 18 of the 132 school districts, met all the measures required to show what the act dubs "Adequate Yearly Progress." Locally, 83 of 185 Fairfax County public schools met the requirements, giving the overall school system a failing grade.
Of the 97 schools failing to meet the targets — 35 in all that measure achievement in math and English, participation, and attendance/graduation in seven subgroups — only one school failed to meet the math achievement requirement and four fell short on the English achievement.
"We have been used to benchmarks based on achievement," said Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech. "With No Child Left Behind, it goes beyond achievement. It has 35 areas that have to be met. If they are not met, the whole school system is considered not to have met the requirements."
The school system ran into problems because the federal act conflicts with the state's regulations concerning the SOLs.
Under the state's policy, limited English proficient (LEP) students who have had less than a year's exposure to English are given a one-time exception from the English SOL. In addition, the state does not require all students with disabilities to take the SOLs. Instead, the state defers to the child's Individualized Education Plan or IEP, which is created by a team consisting of the parents, a special-education teacher, a general-education teacher, the principal or designee, who determine the areas of need, goals, objectives, types of services the child requires. If the SOLs are not included in a student’s individualized education plan, the student is not required to take the exams, but students who do not pass the standards of learning tests, will not receive a standard high school diploma.
THE FEDERAL LAW requires students in special education and students with limited English to take the tests. In the case of students who have yet to master the English language, the government's ruling came after the tests were administered and those students were excluded, resulting in failure for participation.
Overall, the county has 20,974 students classified with limited English, 42 percent of the entire state's population in that category.
Domenech said it is not reasonable for the federal government to expect a student who has been in the United States for less than a year to pass an English test. An alternative math test for students who aren’t proficient in English has been created that does not include word problems, but there is no similar substitute for the English SOL.
IN ADDITION, the school system encouraged many of the students in special education to take the SOLs even though it was not part of the IEP, which presented it own problems.
"We knew we were testing special education kids that shouldn't be tested," said Nancy Sprague, the school system's chief academic officer. "We encouraged a lot of kids to take the SOLs and in some cases it was not appropriate."
There are no alternative tests for student in special education; however, children classified as having severe disabilities are exempt from the No Child Left Behind requirements.
The act requires 95 percent of the population in each subgroup — which is broken down into economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, limited English students, and various ethnic groups — be tested. In some cases, a single student can be counted in more than one subgroup.
The goal of the act is to have all public school students meeting a 100 percent pass rate by 2014 in math, English and eventually science.
If an individual school fails to show adequate yearly progress two years in a row, the school system must provide an opportunity for students to transfer to a passing school. If the school fails a third year, schools must provide access to free tutorial instruction in the private sector to the students whose parent opt to keep their children at the school.
“It's tantamount to saying we can walk on water," Domenech said. "I wish all children could meet the standards, but there are some who realistically can't."
Domenech predicts the act, just like the SOLs, will be revised and "tweaked." In the meantime, he said the school system is taking steps to ensure it improves its performance on the next annual report. He said no school is in danger of failing two years in a row.
Jelinek hopes the act's flaws do not result in the singling out of different groups of students who are perceived to be bringing scores down.
"My fear is as money gets tighter, we'll get a backlash from the community wanting to know why we're sending all this money on special education," Jelinek said. "And the money is going to get tighter because all these testing requirements aren't funded.
"I think No Child Left Behind is really going to force the educational system to find new ways of reaching kids that are reachable. The bad thing is the tool we're using," said Jelinek.