- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Many states and local school districts are underreporting the number of schools failing to teach children to read and do mathematics at their grade level as required by the 2-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, fearful of ultimately losing control over poorly performing schools.

Education Secretary Rod Paige says the problem of districts and states “playing games” to avoid accountability for poor teaching and learning in their schools is not yet “under control” and is anticipated with “any big change like this.”

“In fact, there’s a level of expectation that there will be those that will push the envelope and try to game the system,” Mr. Paige said in an interview with The Washington Times, two years after President Bush’s education-reform law took effect.

So far, more than half the states have reported a combined 2,513 fewer low-performing schools than they did last year, according to data from initial state reports issued Friday by Education Week. Some states did report a rise in the number of low-performing schools over last year, and some have yet to report.

“The idea is not to be on any list that a school needs improvement,” said Rob Weil, director of education issues for the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union.

But Mr. Weil said because standards are stiffening, the number of low-performing schools should be going up, not down, in the second year of the 12-year duration of the law.

“The number of schools on the list will go up significantly because, under the law, the bar schools have to reach now will go up,” Mr. Weil said. “So the schools that were on the margin will have to reach that bar, or they will be added to the list.”

States thus far have listed 5,200 schools as low-performing, from among the 91,380 public elementary and secondary schools nationally — 40 percent fewer than the department’s 2002 listing of 8,652 schools needing improvement.

At least five states with 1,684 schools needing improvement in 2002 had not submitted a tally for the Education Department’s 2003 report, which has been held up by furious school appeal activity at the state level. This is the first year that low-performing schools are to be named and listed under the act.

Apart from being stigmatized as failures, schools receiving federal aid that don’t have a majority of fourth- and eighth-graders testing at a “proficient” level for math and reading are added to the “needing improvement” list and ultimately face a number of sanctions that could lead to takeover or closure by the state after the fifth year.

Once on the list without making “adequate yearly progress” for two years in a row, students must be offered a choice of other public schools to attend. Schools also must offer supplemental services, including private tutoring to students, for which the law provides additional federal funds.

The act requires schools to bring all students up to the “proficient” level on state tests by the 2012-14 school year.

Because of thousands of still-pending appeals by schools to stay off the list, the department has been unable to complete its long-overdue 2003 report to Congress, said Ron Tomalis, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

He said the department expects to finish final adjustments with the states and issue the report sometime this month.

Mr. Tomalis said the department is pressing states and districts to implement the law by the letter.

“There’s some pushing back, a little complacency out there, but it’s isolated,” he said. “The numbers are changing all the time. … They must be exact, or it will undermine implementation of the law.”

Despite resistance of schools that want to stay off the low-performing-schools list, Mr. Paige said “the culture is changing” in the U.S. educational establishment under the act toward an acceptance that “accountability, assessment and choice as a matter of routine rather than something that is revolutionary or a new strategy for reform or something that’s from the outside.”

Nonetheless, congressional Republican leaders think Mr. Paige and his team are “holding firm,” which explains the delay of the overdue low-performing-schools report, said David Schnittger, Republican spokesman for the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“This is what it looks like when education reform is actually implemented instead of just being talked about,” Mr. Schnittger said. “This Education Department has not issued waivers on demand. They have largely stuck to their guns.”

One vexing problem, department officials said, is that some states have “fudged” student attendance and participation in required standardized achievement tests or evaded the federal requirement that 95 percent of students take the tests.

California has acknowledged that it granted many appeals to remove schools from the low-performing list that did not meet the test-participation rule.

The state reported that just 10 percent of its 8,914 public schools need improvement, even though half of California’s fourth-graders and 39 percent of eighth-graders scored “below basic” in reading on the latest round of National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.

Texas also took many schools that tested fewer than the required number of students off its initial 2003 “needs-improvement” list. The state reported just 13 of its 7,646 schools for the list now being compiled, down from the 121 schools on the 2002 list.

According to Education Week, Illinois officials allowed many schools with high student turnover to throw out thousands of tests of students who enrolled in schools after Sept. 30, as a way to help hedge districts with high mobility.

However, even though the move possibly inflated school scores, according to officials, Illinois listed 146 more low-performing schools than it did in 2002.

Others listing more low-performing schools in initial 2003 tallies were Alaska, Arkansas, the District, Indiana, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia.

No schools on the list will be identified until the Education Department issues the final report.

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