- Associated Press - Friday, October 24, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Roughly half of Nebraska schools have repeatedly failed to meet proficiency targets under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, standards that the state’s education commissioner says are “flawed and misleading.”

The annual “State of the Schools” report released Friday for the 2013-14 school year says 480 of Nebraska’s public schools were designated as in need of improvement. Schools that were labeled as such failed to meet benchmarks for at least two consecutive years.

Federal sanctions will require 265 individual schools and 50 districts to offer free tutoring, school transfers or take other steps to comply with the law. The affected schools are those that accept federal Title I money to help educate low-income students; they must also notify parents about missing the targets and programs that are available for students.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt said the benchmarks are unrealistic, and noted that statewide test scores in math, science and reading have collectively improved in the last few years.

“The federal school accountability system is flawed and misleading,” Blomstedt said in a statement.

The law, a signature accomplishment of President George W. Bush’s administration, has faced widespread criticism for its requirement as of last year that 100 percent of students meet math and reading proficiency standards. Congress was scheduled to reauthorize the law in 2007, but the measure has languished.

In a separate letter to parents and caregivers last month, Blomstedt noted that the law required 100 percent proficiency even for students with disabilities and those who may not be proficient in English.

More than half of Nebraska’s school districts earned their all-time best scores overall last year, Blomstedt said. According to the report, 71 percent of students tested this year met math proficiency standards; 72 percent scored proficient in science; and 77 percent were deemed proficient in reading.

Blomstedt said the Nebraska State Board of Education and the Nebraska Department of Education are also working on a new state accountability system. School officials have said they are looking at seeking a federal waiver to the No Child Left Behind Act to break free of some the requirements.

Among the districts placed on the federal improvement list was Grand Island Public Schools, which has a large population of non-English speaking students.

Jennifer Badura, the district’s assessment coordinator, said the district has made strides in helping more of those students become proficient.

She pointed to statewide reading exams for “English Language Learners,” which have steadily improved over the last five years. According to state data, 43 percent of those students were deemed proficient in reading in the 2009-10 school year. Last year, 60 percent of students met that goal.

Even the state tests don’t account for other measures of a school’s quality, such as the rate of students who graduate and attend college, she said.

“Of course, 100 percent is always the goal,” Badura said. “We’ll do everything we can to try to help those students reach that proficiency level. But in the real world, students are not numbers. Some have more challenges than others.”

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