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Seven Schools Fail, Sanctions Avoided

The No Child Left Behind report cards have been handed out and seven Loudoun schools fail.

Seven Loudoun County public schools have avoided serious sanctions after failing to make “adequate yearly progress” as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Seven out of 59 schools failed last school year compared to 10 out of 54 in 2002-03. No Child Left Behind provides a snapshot of student achievement by separating the Standards of Learning test scores by ethnicity, limited English proficiency, low income and special education.

While recognizing the failure, top educators applauded the school district’s improvements in the past year. Eighty-nine percent of the schools passed, compared to 82 percent during the 2002-03 school year. The goal is to have 100 percent pass by 2014.

The schools that did not make adequate yearly progress were Harmony Intermediate, Seneca Ridge and Sterling middle schools, Dominion, Heritage, Park View and Potomac high schools.

HERITAGE, PARK VIEW and Potomac Falls high schools and Sterling Middle School failed two consecutive years. Forest Grove and Guilford elementary schools, Broad Run, Loudoun County, Loudoun Valley and Stone Bridge high schools failed the first-time around, but received passing marks this time.

Loudoun avoided severe sanctions because none of the schools that failed two years consecutively are identified as high-poverty Title I schools.

Any failing Title I schools would receive a sanction of giving the parents the choice of pulling their children out and enrolling them in another public school. In Loudoun, 17 elementary schools were in the Title I category last school year. This coming fall, 10 elementary schools have been identified. Preston Koppels, director of instructional services, attributed the decline in Title I schools to a 15 percent cut in federal funding.

Warren Geurin, Sterling’s School Board member, said Loudoun County would have been sanctioned if a different formula was used to identify Title I schools, “We are very adroit at figuring out how we’re going to say Title I schools,” he said. “We only say Title I when we talk about elementary schools, because we don’t provide Title I services and teachers specifically at middle schools and high schools. If we did have Title I middle and high schools, any of those four schools would have not passed. We would have to offer remediation, after-school tutoring, think about lengthening the school day or year, or if it’s two years in a row, … parents could choose to send their children to a different school. We’d be on the hook to let them do it.”

Loudoun does have $1.8 million in Title I funding coming into the county for 4,000 students, ages 5 to 18, because they come from low-income households. But that does not change how the schools are currently identified.

SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS Edgar Hatrick and Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Sharon Ackerman defended the seven schools that failed to make adequate progress, saying some of the regulations governing No Child Left Behind are faulty. Hatrick said the most unfair aspect of the regulations is that the U.S. Department of Education prohibits a school from using a child’s second or third test score if he fails the first time and passes in subsequent attempts. “I think that’s, frankly, ridiculous,” he said. “The child gets the credit, but the school does not.”

Ackerman agreed. “What we are about in education is helping kids learn from their mistakes,” she said. “These are not designed to be encouraging, but again, a one-time kind of measure with very high stakes.”

Ackerman said she supports the basis of the No Child Left Behind. For years, a school’s test score represented an overall average, she said. But the score hid the fact that some of the students in that average were not doing well. No Child Left Behind provided the opportunity to separate the test scores by ethnicity, limited English proficiency, low income and special education, she said. “You can’t hide behind your averages anymore.”

Progress is measured in the following subgroups: black, Hispanic, limited English proficiency, free- and reduced-priced lunch students, special education and white. All of the students in the white category passed.

ONE-THIRD of this year’s nonpassing marks involved special-education students. Ackerman took exception to requiring those students to pass the Standards of Learning tests. “Students are identified for special education after a vigorous and comprehensive evaluation, because there has been some evidence of a disability impacting their learning,” she said. “To turn around and say we have the same expectations for them, it makes us wonder if that’s fair.”

Teachers are permitted to make accommodations for the special-education students, such as reading the tests out loud to them, giving them additional time to take the tests, or administering the test one-on-one, she said. “But the accommodations are just for the testing. They are taking the same test and the general expectation is that they will hit the same mark as all of the other regular education students.”

Bob Ohneiser, a school board member representing Broad Run, concurred. “What difference does it make, if I am a relatively retarded child, if I know the elevation of the ocean next to the tide water region?” he said. “Do you think it’s fair to take a child who already is having trouble in school and life and teach them something they won’t ever be using? Learning basic math … would serve them much more.

“Give them the tools to survive first, instead of gilding the lily.”

Ackerman said there is evidence the regulations will change for the better. “This is not a great deal different when the State of Virginia went into accreditation, and we started giving SOL tests. We had a U.S. history test that was out of sync with the rest of the test. So they changed it.”

Hatrick said he was pleased with Loudoun’s improvement, but not satisfied with the results. “We’re making progress dealing with a very difficult law,” he said. “I think you are going to see some changes in the regulations.”

Geurin expressed skepticism. “It’s much easier for the Virginia Department of Education to change its regulations than the federal Department of Education to change its regulations,” he said.

He said he agreed it is unfair to give the same test to the special-education students, but the schools are bound by law. Instead of criticizing the regulations, Loudoun’s educators should be addressing the problem, he said. “The scores show that they are not doing their job.”

Geurin called on school administrators to examine the special-education classes more closely to determine why the failure rate was high. “I have strong feelings about any child in any school we are not serving adequately,” he said.

ACKERMAN SAID another flaw in the testing is the “cut off scores,” she said. “They fly in the face of everything we know as educators. We would never give someone a report based on one measure in nine weeks.

“You do it often, you do it in different ways. You show what he knows through group work. You allow kids to demonstrate what they know orally, through projects, written tests and group work. It doesn’t make good sense to pick one cutoff score.”

Ackerman also found fault with some of the teachings in the social studies Standards of Learning tests. “We get into looking at ancient cultures as early as second grade, and I wonder about those, what kids should know and be able to do at that level.”

She said Loudoun used several approaches to turn last year’s failing elementary schools to passing ones. She said the key was conducting individual assessments rather than using general remediation. Teachers identified and addressed weaknesses to close the achievement gaps. “We obviously take this rating seriously,” she said.

FOR THE COMING school year, the county has hired additional content teachers endorsed in math, science, social science and English to team teach with high-school special-education teachers in a smaller class of 10 students. “They will have the best of both worlds, the special-education teacher who knows about the disability and how to support it, and the content teacher who knows how to teach the subject.”

The school district also is using bench marking tests for the first time. The teachers will give a test, which does not count toward the final grade, before mid-terms to check the students’ progress. They will select questions from a software program, then feed the results back into the computer. It will provide information about the strengths and weaknesses of each student and the class as a whole.

Ackerman said some schools were very close to passing. In the case of Harmony Intermediate School, it appeared to be as simple as one student answering one or two more questions correctly, and the school would have passed.

In two cases, part of the schools failure was because they did not meet the 95 percent participation rate. “We’re sure these numbers are wrong. Some of the ESL (English as a Second Language) students were eligible to take alternative tests … but were not accounted for.”

Loudoun can have that mistake corrected, she said.