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Tuesday, October 21, 2014         

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As schools struggle, officials seek relief from NCLB

By Mary Vorsino

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A decade after Hawaii students started taking annual reading and math assessments under No Child Left Behind, there are growing calls locally and nationally to overhaul the federal law that requires that schools meet rising annual proficiency goals or risk losing federal money.

Increasingly, some of the state's top public schools are facing sanctions for failing to meet annual objectives under NCLB, a situation that administrators say is frustrating teachers and confusing parents.

"It is my hope that one day schools won't be judged by one test, but will be judged by the quality of lives of the students we produce," said Mitchell Otani, principal of Kalani High School, which failed to meet annual progress goals this year for the first time since 2005.

NCLB yearly objectives went up this year and will increase again in 2013, when 86 percent of students at Hawaii schools must be proficient in reading, and 82 percent proficient in math.

Glenn Hirata, Department of Education evaluations specialist, said 100 percent proficiency is unattainable, but added that accountability and goals themselves are helpful. "It's nice to have a futuristic, very ideal situation where all kids are wonderfully talented," he said. "The reality is students are all very different. It's got to be a more subdued kind of goal. What's really achieveable?"

As officials brace for more schools failing to meet AYP (adequate yearly progress) in coming years, the DOE is joining other states in looking into possible federal waivers.

Cara Tanimura, director of the Department of Education's systems accountability office, emphasized that discussions are in the early stages and that no decision on whether to seek a waiver has been made.

"We don't want to get people's hope up," Tanimura said. "We're just going to look into it."

Annual assessment scores released Friday showed that 62 percent of Hawaii's 286 schools failed to meet benchmarks for student reading and math proficiency under NCLB, up from 49 percent last year.

For the first time, no Hawaii high schools met the goals, from five in 2010.

And of the 145 Hawaii schools that met AYP in 2010, 62 didn't hit the benchmarks this year.

For most Hawaii schools to meet AYP this year, 72 percent of students had to test proficient in reading, 64 percent in math.

The objectives have been rising since 2001, when 30 percent of students needed to be proficient in reading and 10 percent in math.

For the past three years, schools met AYP if at least 58 percent of students were proficient in reading and 46 percent in math.

The disappointing results this year are a blow to a department struggling to boost student performance and meet Race to the Top education reforms amid mounting budget cuts.

DOE officials and others are quick to point out that while more schools aren't meeting the annual goals, many are making progress in boosting test scores.

(Though the number of schools meeting AYP declined, the overall percentage of students proficient in math rose and the percentage of students proficient in reading remained steady.)

The department also acknowledged frustration over the rising benchmarks, and Tanimura said she would support a "growth model" in place of the AYP system, which would track student progress over time.

"We're sure good things are happening in these schools," she added. "But the law is pretty inflexible."

NCLB was designed to make schools accountable for the achievement of all students, including English as a second language speakers, minorities, low-income children and those in special education.

Schools that don't achieve AYP for two consecutive years are subject to varying sanctions that include state intervention and replacement of staff.

Experts have warned that schools could risk federal funding in 2014 if they miss targets or if states are not in compliance with NCLB, but also say the law is vague on how — and how much — funding would be lost.

State Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said her concern with the federal law is that it puts a label on a school that may be untrue.

"While many schools might not be making AYP, at the same time those same schools could have been making tremendous gains," she said. "I've shared these concerns from the very beginning, whether or not we'll start to create self-fulfilling prophecies by labeling our schools as failing."

Tanimura, of the DOE, added that NCLB has been positive in many ways: It has put schools and school districts on notice that they have to ensure the progress of all kids, and it has focused attention on persistently low-achieving schools.

The Obama administration and a growing number of states have urged Congress to reauthorize the law, proposing fundamental changes to how schools are rated and given credit for student growth.

So far, though, there has been little action on reauthorization and there's dwindling hope it will happen this year, prompting U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to recently propose that the U.S. DOE take matters into its own hands, granting waivers to states that would require agreement on as-yet unspecified accountability standards.

It's unclear if the waiver program will go forward, given some opposition from Congress.

Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy at the Education Trust, a Washington-based organization that works to close achievement gaps among minorities and disadvantaged students, said the debate is not whether NCLB needs an overhaul, but what that overhaul should be like.

Some are pushing to keep strong accountability standards for schools to ensure student progress in closing achievement gaps, while others are urging more state flexibility in how money is spent and goals are set.

"NCLB is long overdue for reauthorization and I don't think you'll find anyone out there, regardless of where they stand, who doesn't think we don't need to change it," Hall said.

U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, a member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said she's worried some proposed changes moving through Congress would negatively affect the special subgroups NCLB was meant to help.

She added that she would support administrative relief for states in the absence of changes to the law.

"By 2014, you're going to have a huge number of schools failing," she said. "We need to recognize the reality of what's coming down the pike."






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