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Missing The Mark

The School Board discusses Arlington Public Schools’ recent failure to meet federal standards.

Local school officials last week blamed the test for the recent failure of nearly half of Arlington’s public schools to meet federal testing standards.

Members of the School Board, as well as school staff, blamed the missed standards — instituted as a part of the No Child Left Behind Act — on what they saw as unfair testing practices for non-English speaking students and said that the standards, known as Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP, are not an accurate measure of the quality of a school.

"I hope they’ll scrap [the No Child Left Behind Act] and do it right this time," Board Member Libby Garvey said, speaking of the debate currently taking place in Congress about whether to renew the controversial law.

School divisions around Northern Virginia have been attributing their poor performances on the Adequate Yearly Progress standard to a new federally-mandated practice that forces students who are new to the country to take the same reading test as native English speakers.

"If the students were in the country for one year and one day, they had to take the grade-level test," Mark Johnston, assistant superintendent for instruction, said. "If you had to go to another country and take a test in their language, I imagine it would be quite challenging."

"I’d like to see some of our congressmen and [federal] education officials do that," quipped Garvey.

ARLINGTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS’ performance this year based on the Adequate Yearly Progress yardstick was particularly dismal.

Fourteen of its 30 schools failed to meet the federal standard, which measured reading and math in a variety of different demographic groups. School officials pointed out at the School Board’s bimonthly meeting last week that if one of a school’s demographic groups fails to meet AYP, the entire school is listing as having failed.

However, only Title I schools, which are schools with high numbers of economically disadvantaged students that receive federal funding, can face any tangible consequences from the failure to meet Adequate Yearly Progress.

There are 11 Title I schools in Arlington, all of them elementary schools, and eight of those schools did not make AYP this year. One of them, Hoffman-Boston Elementary School, missed AYP for the fifth consecutive year and may be forced to undergo a major restructuring.

School Board members said that, while they were concerned about meeting the standards, it was not their number one priority.

"My major concern is the direction we’re moving," School Board Chairman David Foster said. "It’s possible for a school to make AYP and not improve and it’s possible for a school to miss AYP and improve."

Johnston tried to put the test results into perspective, saying that "What we’re describing are technical details but teachers are trying very hard and sometimes this is beyond their control."

"I think everyone up here would agree with that," Foster said. "These are excellent schools."

Garvey pointed out that Barcroft Elementary School has won national awards in the past but did not make AYP this year. "It just shows how mismatched this is," she said.

But School Board Member Frank Wilson said that one positive that is coming from the schools’ poor performance is that it is getting the Board to focus on instruction.

"Sometimes we, here on the Board, don’t focus on [education] because we have a full plate of capital [projects]," he said. "This is an area we can’t over-discuss."