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How Fair Is No Child Left Behind?

Large, urban schools are more likely to be cited

Jul. 2, 2008
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Does the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law unfairly grade urban schools while giving smaller schools a pass? The Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) district has been a “district identified for improvement” for two years running, based on MPS students’ scores on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE), given in November.

Eighty-two individual MPS schools— including the gems of the district, such as Riverside High, Milwaukee High School of the Arts and Rufus King High—are not making the academic progress that they should be making, according to preliminary data just released by the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Thirty-six of those schools are “schools identified for improvement,” which means that they have not met specific benchmarks for two or more consecutive years. One high school, Pulaski, has missed targets for six years; one of the remedies is restructuring the school.

The state DPI has already stepped in with recommendations for MPS as a whole, and MPS is tweaking its strategic plan to bring the district up to state standards. “DPI began working with MPS last fall to begin addressing these issues,” said DPI Communications Officer Patrick Gasper. “They created a big plan, they’ve hired some extra people. We’ve put some people on their staff, and they’re having regular meetings with our finance and curriculum people. And we’ve been holding some community listening forums.”

Besides MPS, three other school districts—the Madison, Racine and Beloit districts—were also cited for not making “adequate yearly progress.”

More Students, More Hurdles
Yet the state test results don’t necessarily indicate that MPS schools are doing worse than other schools. Instead, NCLB may be taking a closer look at larger schools while giving smaller schools a pass because there aren’t enough students to be assessed.

Schools and districts are assessed by the performance of students in grades three through eight and, in high school, the 10th grade. They are scored on students’ performance in math and reading, on their test participation and either graduation rates (for high school assessments) or attendance rates (for elementary or middle schools). Those results are analyzed not only for the student population as a whole, but for how well various subgroups of students perform, categories ranging from ethnicity to students with disabilities, English language learners, and those who are economically disadvantaged.

But a school must have at least 40 students in a category to be assessed for that category. Larger, urban schools like MPS schools are more likely to have a diverse student population and are more apt to reach the 40-student threshold for each category, and therefore will be assessed on those benchmarks.

Smaller, more homogeneous schools are less likely to have 40 students who are English language learners or economically disadvantaged, for example, and won’t be assessed on those benchmarks. Students in private or voucher schools do not have to take these tests and are not required to reach standards mandated by No Child Left Behind.

“Typically in larger districts you have all of the target populations for No Child Left Behind, and you tend to have a large enough number of them, so you’re going to be reporting on more subgroups than a smaller district,” said Catherine Thome, MPS director of district and school improvement. Gasper, from DPI, said the odds are against larger schools and districts.

“The more students you have, the more likely you will have students who don’t meet the targets,” Gasper said. “It’s aper centage game.”

The Same Standards for All Students
Also working against MPS’s performance on the NCLB benchmarks are the ever rising academic standards. All students are being held to the same academic standards, including students who are learning English or those who are classified as special education students. One or two percent of the students are allowed to take an alternative to the WKCE specifically designed for students withd is abilities, but those scores are included in their school’s overall scores.

But MPS has 18%-19% of its student population classified as special ed students— higher than surrounding school districts— and all of those students are expected to meet the same state standards. Many of the schools that didn’t meet state standards this year did so because of the performance of the students with learning disabilities.

“The standards are the same for all students,” Thome said. “Some students have farther to go to reach those standards.” She said that many students with learning disabilities are improving academically, but still not meeting the state standards. “I might, as a teacher, have a student who makes continuous improvement through out the year, but it’s not enough to be proficient on the WKCE,” Thome said.

What’s more, the standards got higher this year. In the 2006-07 school year, 67.5% of students were supposed to be proficient in reading and 47.5% were supposed to be proficient in math. Those benchmarks were raised to 74% proficiency in reading and 58% proficiency in math. By 2014, NCLB mandates 100% proficiency in reading and math.

“We had more schools that were proficient last year, but because the proficiency rate was raised, that caught some more schools,” Thome said. Thome added that some schools that are making progress aren’t being fairly recognized by the NCLB standards. She said she thinks of NCLB as having 18 hurdles that each school must clear each year. “If you knock one hurdle down, you get dinged,” Thome said. “You don’t get credit for the 17 hurdles you didn’t knock down.”

She said a good example of hidden progress is Hamilton High School, which technically got worse last year. “Last year they knocked down six hurdles and this year they only knocked down one,” Thome said. “They made progress with different subgroups of students, but they still missed one, so they don’t get credit for improving.”

This is the first of a continuing series on the No Child Left Behind Act’s impact on education in the state. What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


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