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Votes

Grading the Schools

Cora Kelly and Jefferson-Houston will face sanctions under No Child Left Behind.

Parents in the Arlandria area will be given an opportunity to abandon their neighborhood school under the dictates of the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind legislation, offering a "choice" to ditch Cora Kelly School for Math Science and Technology in favor of a school with higher test scores. And administrators at Jefferson-Houston School for the Arts and Academics will be forced to reconstitute, a move that administrators say they will accomplish by transferring seven existing employees out of the school and transferring seven new employees in from other schools with higher test scores. The sanctions at Cora Kelly and Jefferson-Houston represent the cutting edge of No Child Left Behind — forcing change at schools that don’t meet standards.

"Obviously, I’m disappointed," said Bill Campbell, president of the Jefferson-Houston parent-teacher association. "I know that the central office is dedicated to improving this school, but I’d like to see more of a commitment from the community."

Overall, Alexandria City Public Schools failed to meet a standard known as "Adequate Yearly Progress," a federally mandated series of benchmarks that school officials refer to as "AYP." According to the Virginia Department of Education, 75 percent of the city’s students passed the English test and 70 percent of the city’s students passed the Math test. The division failed to meet the federal standards in seven subgroups, four in English and three in Math. Subgroups that did not meet the standard for English — a 73 percent pass rate — were Hispanic students, students with limited English proficiency, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities. Subgroups that did not meet the standard for Math — a 71 percent pass rate — were black students, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities.

"If we were using last year’s required pass rates, we would have met or exceeded 14 of the benchmarks we failed to meet this year," said Superintendent Rebecca Perry in a written statement. "But each year it becomes more difficult for a school to meet the annual measurable objectives because the required pass rates go up."

<b>UNDER THE BYZANTINE</b> rules of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, students are required to participate in high-stakes testing under increasingly difficult circumstances. Under Title 1 of the act, federal money is tied to steadily rising expectations. (Schools that don’t receive money under Title 1 are not subject to sanctions.) By 2014, according to the law signed by President George W. Bush on Jan. 8, 2002, all schools will eventually be required to meet a rigorous standard of perfection — 100 percent of all subgroups will be expected to pass English and Math tests. School administrators say that the 100-percent expectation is a laudable goal, even if accomplishing such a task might be asking the impossible from principals and teachers.

"It’s sort of like the Holy Grail," said Deputy Superintendent Cathy David. "As the expectation reaches 100 percent, we are going to see more and more schools falling behind and not making AYP."

Other federal mandates have caused headaches for Alexandria administrators, including a new dictate that requires the city to administer grade-level tests to students with extremely limited English skills. Typically, these are students who come from other countries — Latino students from Mexico or African students from Ethiopia, for example. In the past, students with extremely limited proficiency with their new language were given a test that was limited to their understanding of the English language. But a new federal ruling mandated that all students — even recent arrivals from other countries — must take grade-level tests just like all the other students.

"It’s immoral to give children this test because it sets them up for failure," said School Board member Sheryl Gorsuch, who supported a motion earlier this year to condemn the new federal rule. "If you had been in China for a year and I gave you a test in Chinese, would you pass?"

The motion was crafted by School Board member Eileen Cassidy Rivera, who included a clause referring to the new rule as "unfair, unrealistic, unethical, inappropriate and unsupported by research in second-language acquisition." That language was later struck from the motion after School Board member Claire Eberwein, who said she would prefer a resolution that was "unemotional" and "unbiased." By the time students finished taking the Standards of Learning tests last year, administrators were already wondering what kind of an influence the new rule would have.

"In the past, these students would have taken a test that would have measured their acquisition of the English language," said Amy Carlini, spokeswoman for the school division. "But this year these students took the grade-level tests just like all the other students."

<b>CORA KELLY SCHOOL</b> for Math, Science and Technology may have received the brunt of the problems created by the new federal rule requiring newly arrived immigrants to take grade-level tests. Administration officials are still crunching the data to figure out the exact number of students at Cora Kelly, although they suspect that the school might have met the federal benchmarks if the new rule hadn’t been implemented this year. During a meeting at the school earlier this week to discuss the test results, a group of parents told administrators that they would not abandon the school for one with higher grades, even if No Child Left Behind offered them the choice to do so.

"The unanimous response I heard at that meeting was that the parents were going to stay," said Kris Clark, executive director for elementary programs. "The parents I spoke with were very supportive of the teachers and administrators at the school."

Cora Kelly failed to meet federal standards in five categories, all of which tested English reading skills. The groups that did not achieve the federally mandated pass rates were all students, black students, Hispanic students, students with limited English proficiency and students with disabilities. Administrators say that the upcoming school year will see teachers duplicating the tactics of a science initiative that raised test scores in that area last year. Additionally, teachers will receive mandatory specialized training in grade-level language acquisition. By targeting students for whom English is a second language, administrators hope to meet federal standards.

"There is a spirit of continual improvement at our school," said Cora Kelly Principal Darren Reed. "Nobody likes to have that mark that we are a failing school, but there is no sense of discouragement here. We have some issues with No Child Left Behind, but the bottom line is that we believe we have the resources to make this work."

<b>AT JEFFERSON-HOUSTON SCHOOL</b> for the Arts and Academics, administrators have been engaged in a prolonged effort to improve test scores at the school. Because the elementary school at the southern edge of the Parker Gray neighborhood has consistently failed to meet federal standards since 2004, it was one of the first to offer choice. As a result of not meeting benchmarks again this year, Jefferson-Houston will be forced to implement a corrective action — moving seven employees out of the building and bringing in seven new employees from elsewhere in the division. Assistant Principal Susan Stickles said that she is excited about the school’s new literacy coach, whom the administration hired over the summer.

"The literacy coach is going to look at data to see where the students are, then help teachers find a way to use that in the classroom," said Stickles. "In the next year we are going to shift our focus towards meeting the instructional needs of the teachers and the students."

Because Jefferson-Houston has such a limited population, many of its subgroups were not reflected in the school’s rating. For example, the grades of white students, disabled students and students with limited English proficiency were not considered when determining whether or not the school met standards because each of those groups had fewer than 50 participants.

"Statistically, when you have a small group you will see wild fluctuations from year to year," said Charles Pyle, spokesman for the department. "You don’t want to base an accountability rating on three Hispanic students."

The only subgroups that were considered at Jefferson-Houston under the federal rules were black students and economically disadvantaged students. Both of these groups failed to meet standards in both English and Math, meaning that the school failed in all relevant categories. The upcoming school year will see many new faces at the school, including a new counselor, a new social worker, a new psychologist, a new preschool teacher, a new nurse and a new gifted teacher. According to Francis Chase, president of the teacher’s union, administration officials and school employees will be coordinating an all-out effort to raise test scores next year.

"Jefferson-Houston’s test scores actually went up last year — we just didn’t meet the federal standards," said Chase, who will be the school’s new art teacher this year. "We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. The staff is very upbeat, and we’re going to continue doing what we did last year."