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Arlington Schools Fall Short on NCLB

Any student in six elementary students may transfer to new schools in light of evaluation results.

Parents of 27 Arlington students chose to transfer their children to other schools this week after six public elementary schools failed to meet standards of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

A yearly evaluation released by the Arlington School Board Aug. 18 revealed the six Title I schools, schools that receive federal funding because of high percentage of poor students, fell short of making “adequate yearly progress” standards in at least one of the categories outlined by NCLB.

Under the law, the schools are required to offer transfer options to all students in a school that fails to meet the adequate yearly progress even in just one subgroup. Campbell Elementary is accepting three new transferred students. Nine will transferred to Ashlawn Elementary and the remaining 15 will begin the coming school year at Henry Elementary.

Parents had until Aug. 30 to request that their children be transferred. Dr. Robert Smith, superintendent of Arlington schools, said most of the low test scores are in fields related to reading and language comprehension and the students affected by the transfers are predominately those who are learning English as a second language.

"In Arlington schools, none of the subgroups have problems meeting the standards in mathematics," Smith said. "None have a problem meeting the standards in attendance. All of the targets missed are related to reading and language arts. These standards use a fairly narrow gauge to define what makes an adequate school. A school that misses one target is hardly inadequate. All of these six are good-performing schools."

Smith added many of the parents who requested transfers changed their minds a few days later. At Barrett Elementary, which missed four of the 29 benchmarks used to evaluate schools, Principal Theresa Bratt said she sees the sanctions being placed on her school as unfair and the standards her non-English speaking students are being held to as impractical. Bratt's students, some of whom have studied English for just one year, are required to test at a high level of English proficiency. Bratt said that expectation is unrealistic.

"I would challenge any of us to be a speaker of a foreign language for a year or less and be able to test at that kind of proficiency level," she said. "Having high standards is, of course, very important because in the future, these students will have to compete for jobs and to get into college. I would just like to have realistic expectations for yearly progress."

According to Bratt, elementary school students often take three to four years just to learn conversational English and it is not uncommon for a student to need five or six years of study to understand English in terms of academic language. The sanctions, however, have caused Bratt to place even greater emphasis on reading comprehension and language in Barrett's curriculum. Bratt is also working to encourage more parents to become closely involved in developing their children's language abilities.

"We have tremendous parent involvement at Barrett but for oral language development, it has to be pervasive involvement," she said. "It has to happen at home."

Something as simple as a family's conversation at the dinner table, Bratt said, can go a long way towards a developing a student's English proficiency.

"To be a good reader, you have to develop good oral language before you begin to read," she explained. "There need to be more families sitting down to dinner and talking to their children. The dinner hour, from what I hear, is somewhat scattered these days. Children watch TV instead and so, they are receiving language but they aren't using it."

Bratt added that the methods used to evaluate the different groups within her school have certain flaws. As an example, she cited one subgroup listed on the evaluation, students who receive free-and-reduced lunches.

"That population tends to be our English as a second language group, so some of the same kids are being counted twice but they are factored into the results of the overall student body evaluation," she said. "I have no trouble with having high expectations for children. The only issue I have is the need to be fair about it. For children who are not native English speakers to meet the same level of proficiency as a native English speaker is very of difficult."

Superintendent Smith pointed out that the standards used to measure a school's yearly progress vary from state to state and from school to school. In Virginia, he said, a school must have fifty students in a particular subgroup in order to held accountable for their progress in the yearly evaluations, whereas schools in Maryland must have only five.

"The real conflict is in the equity and consistency of the standards," he said.

As a result of the yearly progress evaluation, Smith said Arlington schools must now allot $385,000 to purchase new buses and to design new bus routes.

"We're not complaining about the standards, but I think the consequences for not meeting them are onerous," he said. "They deflect us from talking about student learning and, instead, we have to spend time talking about bus routes and transfers."

Bratt added that not only is Barrett Elementary fully compliant with Virginia's state testing standards but her students excel in almost every other area except reading and language arts, an extremely difficult field for its high percentage of students for whom English is their second language. She cited the school's eightieth percentile scores in social studies and science and its nearly one-hundredth percentile scores in math.

"We are a high-performing, high-poverty school," she said. "If you're a parent who is bringing your child to Barrett for the first time and you hear that we've failed on these measurements, that doesn't give you an accurate impression of our children and their performance."

In an Aug. 18 statement, Arlington School Board Chairwoman Libby Garvey was also critical of the NCLB evaluation results.

"While I agree in principle with the overall goals of the No Child Left Behind Act, since they mirror Arlington's own strategic plan adopted a full two years before the legislation was passed, I do not believe that many of the federal regulations provide a sound way to achieve these goals," she said.

Following the report's release, the six schools each held meetings with parents to discuss the sanctions. Parents appeared relatively unconcerned; in some cases none showed up to the meetings. At others, according to Garvey, parents rallied to show support for their schools in the face of what many called unfair penalties.

"I don't believe these standards are an accurate measure of student success,” Garvey said Friday. “Sometimes these kids are counted four times over. If a student is, for example, Hispanic, an English language learner, on a free or reduced lunch and has special learning needs, they will fall into all of those subgroups and they're counted in each one."

Parents at Barcroft Elementary, which missed two of NCLB's yearly progress standards, both related to language arts and reading comprehension, are unconcerned with the report's results, according to Tiera Bonnefond, president of school's Parent Teacher Association. No Barcroft parents had applied for a transfer as of Friday and many see the results as an inaccurate measure of the education their students are receiving, Bonnefond said.

"We have the utmost faith in the teachers and faculty at Barcroft," Bonnefond said Monday. "We know the quality of the education our children are getting there and we know that the teachers work very hard to identify the students who need help and to address their problems in the classroom."

Bonnefond, who sends both of her children to Barcroft, said the school has a significant population of students for whom English is a second language and students with learning disabilities. The standards, she said, do not give parents a clear picture of the school's academic performance.

"Some of these kids are still learning English but they are testing fine in other areas," she said. "They all tested well in math, for example. English, for many of them, it is not their first language. It can be a tough language to learn for anyone. We're not making excuses, but I do not think this is an adequate assessment of our school."

After the 2002-2003 school year, nine of Arlington's 13 schools did not meet NCLB progress standards as opposed to only six in the 2003 to 2004 evaluation. Smith said although the six schools are being sanctioned, the 2003 to 2004 evaluation does show improvements in the overall performance of Arlington schools. Each of the six also missed more of the 29 progress goals used to measure their performance in the 2002 to 2003 year than were missed this year.

According to Smith, the schools designated to receive transfer students each have less than an eighty percent utilization rate, meaning twenty percent of their classroom slots are open and the schools will not be overburdened.

"We continue to get better," he said. "These things don't change over night but rather, they change with steady progress."