Alaska editorial: Kudos to new federal rule to help measure school performance

Posted: Monday, June 25, 2007

One of the more troublesome features of the federal No Child Left Behind Act will be less onerous in Alaska, thanks to a change blessed by the feds last week.

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In rating school performance, Alaska will no longer be restricted to an ironclad accounting of whether the required number of students are "proficient" as measured on standardized tests. Alaska schools will also be allowed to consider how fast underachieving students are catching up to proficient levels.

This change, known in the lingo as a "growth model" for evaluating schools, is better for schools and for students.

The old evaluation system relied on a mere snapshot of performance. It looked only at the proficiency scores of the students who happen to be enrolled in a particular school on testing day.

That snapshot made the school accountable for the achievement of whatever students the school had on testing day, regardless of how long the school had to educate them.

A school with a stable student body drawn from high-income, highly educated families can easily pass muster. A school serving impoverished students whose families move frequently could do a great job of teaching and still find that not enough students are "proficient."

Rather than a snapshot, the growth model is more like a movie, showing how individual students are progressing over time. It provides a fuller picture of what's happening. That's especially helpful in schools serving large numbers of transient students.

It's definitely fair to hold an entire school district accountable for students who move from school to school within the district. Districts should have a consistent approach that helps the students learn the basics evaluated on tests, regardless of which school the student attends.

Until the feds OK'd the growth model, though, Alaska schools serving low-income students faced sanctions for "inadequate" progress even though many students don't stay there long enough for the staff to make a difference.

No Child Left Behind's strict demands have been useful. The law pressures schools to make sure they don't write off hard-to-educate students. But the old accountability rules set the bar so high that many good schools serving challenging students would fall short. The law's stern demands are more defensible, and should be more effective, now that the measurements of progress are more reasonable.

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