Program focuses on testing and attendance, but city says perversities obscure real achievement
Five Southwest schools were among the 259 Minnesota schools listed as underachievers, according to a July state report based on President George W. Bush’s "No Child Left Behind," the most sweeping federal education legislation in decades.
Two Southwest schools that made the list last year met the program’s standards in 2003: Jefferson Elementary, 1200 W. 26th St., and Lyndale Elementary, 312 W. 34th St.
Using a statewide standardized test, federal law tracks progress of a school’s student body, and within it, eight racial, ethnic, income and learning subgroups for math and reading. This is the first year sub-groups have been measured.
Windom Open School, 5821 Wentworth Ave. S., emerged as Minnesota’s most underachieving school: four groups failed to make "adequate yearly progress" in nine "No Child" testing categories.
Ramsey Fine Arts Elementary, 1 W. 49th St., had three groups – Hispanics, limited English and students receiving free or reduced-price lunches – fail six categories. Bryn Mawr Elementary School, 252 Upton Ave. S., had two underacheiving groups – blacks and students in poverty – fail two tests. Whittier Elementary School, 2620 Grand Ave. S., made the list because its limited-English students failed one test (see sidebar, next page).
No traditional Southwest middle school or high school made the list. However, the International Center For Accelerated Language Learning, Lake Street and Colfax Avenue South, made the list based on the progress of limited-English-proficiency students. The International Center is an alternative high school for new immigrants and students ages 17 through 23 with little education or limited English proficiency.
The new law prescribes progressive penalties for schools.
Making the list for the first time puts a school on a watch list; Bryn Mawr, Ramsey and four of Windom’s nine groups are in this category.
If any school group fails to progress a second year, the school becomes "identified" and must offer school choice. Five of Windom’s nine groups are in this category.
Failing a third year brings financial consequences. The district may pay for busing students to a better school or pay private vendors such as Sylvan Learning Center to tutor low-income students. Whittier is the only Southwest school in this group.
If schools remain on the list for five years, the school could be closed down and reopened with a new staff.
State officials admit they are struggling with "No Child’s" fallout.
"It’s a new system and we are not sure what strategies will work to remedy schools like Whittier," said Bill Walsh, Minnesota Department of Education spokesperson. "Whittier is looking at one, possibly two years of tutoring to supplement what they are doing during the day. We’re going to help them with a school site improvement plan, and hopefully the school district will give them some help as well — maybe not with a ton of money, but with people and resources."
Whittier recently hired a new bilingual principal, Armando Camacho, for the coming school year.
Jefferson and Lyndale were taken off the watch list after being on it for two years. Cheryl Creecy, Deputy Superintendent said it resulted from a deliberate strategy.
"One thing we did is to invest heavily in all-day Kindergarten, which gives kids additional time to catch up before entering 1st grade. In addition, schools were mandated to follow a standardized proven curriculum. That’s paid off in those two buildings."
A good standard?
Minnesota, according to national statistics, rates fourth among the states in educational achievement. In contrast to its 259 underachieving schools, no schools in Arkansas or Wyoming made the watch list. Last year, 1,000 schools in Michigan made the list — but this year, every one of them met the standards. Is Minnesota falling behind the nation educationally?
The "No Child" law lets every state legislature set its own educational goals. Arkansas, Wyoming and Michigan lowered their educational goals to fall off the radar screen and save themselves money, said Minneapolis Schools Supt. Carol Johnson.
In this state, "No Child’s" academic barometer is the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test. It is given to all Minneapolis students in third and fifth grade. The state wants every elementary school student to earn a score of 1420 by 2013 (a perfect score is 1800). In 2003, Minneapolis third graders averaged 1404 in reading and 1443 in math.
Middle schools are expected to maintain a 90 percent attendance rate, but there are no tests. High school students get a 10th-grade reading test and an 11th-grade math test, and each high school must have an 80 percent graduation rate.
Is "No Child Left Behind" good public policy or federal nonsense?
Johnson says many of "No Child’s" goals — such as getting all kids to achieve and measuring subgroup progress — are the right ones.
"We ought to know if what groups are achieving and testing is one way to find out," Johnson said. "But some things you can test and some things you cannot test. I am not in denial that African-American students are not achieving at high levels, or that we need to do better with [limited-English-proficiency] students, but too often we get focused on the bad stuff."
Johnson said that in Minneapolis, MCA scores for all groups — regardless of poverty, language or ethnicity — have improved steadily since 1998 and that the district as a whole made adequate yearly progress. She credited that academic progress to all-day kindergarten, and a cohesive district-wide reading-teaching strategy.
She added that district-wide test scores have gone up as diversity increased.
In Minneapolis, many "No Child" requirements are already standard practice. The district has long measured yearly progress of minority subgroups — in part because the gap between white students and students of color is among the largest of any American city. Parents can also opt out of a school that does not meet their standards; this actually happened at Windom, when a dozen families transferred their kids to other city schools such as Barton, Anthony Middle School and Lake Harriet last summer.
As of last September, 76 percent of Windom students were living in poverty and 38 percent had limited English proficiency.
However, Minneapolis "No Child" coordinator Susan Thomas said that Windom’s problems cannot be attributed to poverty since there are over 20 Minneapolis schools whose student population has a higher level of kids living in poverty based on their eligibility for free and reduced lunch.
To get schools like Windom off the list, Creecy said the district’s Teacher Instructional Services Department will help teachers in math and reading instruction.
Thomas, a district employee, takes issue with the suggestion that schools "failed" — especially since there is nothing in the federal law that talks about schools failing.
Still, she had no explanation of why the Southwest schools made the watch list.
David Heistad, the Minneapolis schools’ executive director of evaluation, testing and student information, said pinpointing Windom’s problem may take weeks of investigation because there are so many variables to consider.
He said instruction may be a problem, but another concern is mobility — new students entering city schools from other districts and other countries.
For example, in January 2003 alone, 475 new students entered the Minneapolis schools from other districts — 1 percent of the district’s entire student body. That means that Minneapolis may be penalized for other districts’ inadequacies, Johnson said.
"Changes in the school population has a big effect on schools, and Windom has been up and down ever since the 1999-2000 school year when they began measuring [average yearly progress]," Heistad said. "One year, they were in the 10 highest gainers, and the next year they were in the 10 highest losers. In a number of these schools that were identified, the kids who left the school scored higher than the kids coming into the school. It can have an effect on the scores and put you on the watch list."
Perversely, Heistad said, the problem at Bryn Mawr might have been too much recent improvement. "They had a fantastic year last year, and this year they fell short by half a point," he said. "It is largely because they made too much progress last year and had a different group of third graders who scored lower on the MCA test. It’s not cut-and-dried — where you get 1420 and then you pass. It is also based on previous scores, and your relationship to last year’s scores."
Showing up matters
Former Minneapolis middle-school principal Thomas tracks the expanded accountability demanded of local schools — especially each subgroup’s "participation rate."
"Participation rates are the first thing that the feds look at when measuring annual yearly progress," Thomas said.
Each school must have 95 percent of each subgroup taking the test "so that the teachers aren’t tempted to tell their less-academically inclined students not to show up for school the day of the test because they might bring down the school’s average," Thomas said.
Four of nine Windom subgroups failed for this reason.
However, Thomas said a major problem with "No Child’s" participation standard is that school subgroups are counted in October, but the standardized test isn’t given until March. Kids in poverty frequently change schools, making it difficult to track where they have gone.
Despite participation complexities, most failing Southwest school subgroups — 10 of 14 — missed because of test scores.
Over the years, administrators like Johnson and Thomas have seen educational reform come and go. Profiles of Learning and Outcome Based Education are just two state’s education reform programs intended to make schools excel but were soon dumped because they didn’t work, they said.
However, getting rid of federal legislation is a lot more difficult, Johnson and Thomas say. More likely, the program will be tweaked on a regular basis until it lives up to its educational ideal of leaving no child behind.