Empire editorial: No Child Left Behind report card coming up

Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2003

In the coming week, the Juneau School District will receive a report card from the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development ranking how its schools are performing against the standards of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). The report measuring the 2002-03 school year is going to show that some Juneau schools did very well and some not meet the standards for adequacy.

But before parents of students in the underperforming schools rush to judgment, it is important to understand a little bit about how the program works and exactly what criteria is being used to evaluate performance.

The 1,200-page act defines a national effort to reform public education. The promise of NCLB is that every child will learn state standards in core subjects. NCLB follows the Improving America's Schools Act passed in 1994 in laying the groundwork for a good system of education standards, measurements and accountability.

Alaska began its own effort to reform education 12 years ago with essentially the same goal of improving the output of our education system, which is to graduate a greater number of children with higher learning levels in math, reading and writing.

NCLB depends upon a complicated set of standards and measurements to access how our schools are performing. The yardstick used to measure each school's performance is "adequate yearly progress" (AYP). There are two metrics that determine a school's overall performance.

In math the goal for the first three years of the program requires 64.3 percent of all students enrolled for a full school year to attain the proficiency standard (annual measurable objectives) set by the state. For language arts the goal is 54.86 percent.

Under NCLB the annual measurable objectives for language arts and math increase each year through the 2013-14 school year. In the final year of the program the target is 100 percent proficiency in each subject area.

AYP is a rating system designed to identify schools needing improvement and also a tool used to isolate more finite areas of achievement within each school falling short of the mark.

In order to make AYP, schools and the district must meet the requirements in each of up to 31 criteria. Therefore, there are 31 opportunities for any school to miss an overall adequacy rating for the year. Some schools will meet or exceed AYP goals, some may miss by a long shot and some may come very close.

An individual school's chances for winning an adequacy rating depend largely upon the makeup of the various subgroups, class size and how each subgroup performs. Unquestionably, the greatest influence on performance is the quality of the teachers in the classroom and their effectiveness in transferring knowledge to their students.

NCLB leans heavily on accountability to achieve its end goal. The program applies an elaborate system of sanctions to steer underperforming schools in the direction of improvement. For Title 1 funded schools, there is a five-tiered scale of prescribed corrective actions that range from "Alert" status to comprehensive reconstruction of the school's program, which could mean wholesale staffing changes and more control from the state.

Sixty percent of Alaska's schools are Title 1 funded. Federal funds from this program amounted to $41.3 million for fiscal year 2003. Total federal funding for Alaska's schools for fiscal year 2002 under the Improving America's Schools Act (IASA) was $157 million. For fiscal year 2003 under the No Child Left Behind Act, Alaska received $180 million.

Even though the NCLB Act uses strong sanctions to achieve its end, there is no risk of loss of funding for underperforming schools.

Roger Sampson, Alaska Commissioner of Education and Early Development, is confident that Alaska can meet the challenges of NCLB by looking at our education system in a whole new light and indoctrinating sweeping reforms.

The commissioner believes the NCLB program could be improved by modifying it to include a growth factor that would credit individual schools for making significant strides against NCLB standards even though they might fall short of the adequacy rating.

The pass/fail ranking used in AYP is perceived as being a disincentive to schools coming close to meeting standards and also to schools that are making good progress from year to year, but have steeper challenges to meet. Many of Alaska's rural schools, for instance, will have a tough time getting up to speed with new learning requirements placed on teachers, provisions for supplemental learning for students, etc.

A very important component of any education initiative is parental and community involvement. Parents and anyone interested in NCLB can learn more about the program and its ranking system by visiting the Department of Education's Web site at: www.eed.state.ak.us/nclb/

Don Smith



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