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Is Paso making the grade?

Local reports highlight improvement, and problems with No Child Left Behind

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Earlier this month, the California State Board of Education released its yearly report indicating which schools made “Adequate Yearly Progress” under the federal No Child Left Behind law and which schools could face consequences for failing.

About two thirds of schools countywide passed the federal standard, but in Paso Robles Unified School District, two thirds of schools failed.

The numbers don’t look good on paper. Yet a closer look at the district's experience with No Child Left Behind reveals some of the limits of the federal yardstick.

Consider, first, that the Paso Robles district showed improvement last year according to the state’s measure of school performance. Yet only four of 12 schools in the district passed the federal mark.

Four schools in the district are considered “excellent” under the state standard, meaning that they scored more than 800 points in California’s Academic Performance Index—1,000 points is considered perfect. Another three schools in the district are close to that state mark, but as the experience of Daniel Lewis Middle School demonstrates, that’s not always enough to comply with the controversial law.

California measures a student’s competency with the three-digit Academic Performance Index (API). No Child Left Behind comes up with a separate Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) score, based in part on the state’s test results and graduation rates. But it also breaks down traditional student groups—based on ethnicity—into sub categories and holds schools accountable for the progress of these smaller groups.

Daniel Lewis boosted math and English scores in 2008, and boosted its Academic Performance Index score 30 points to 807, but still didn’t meet No Child’s standards.

“Daniel Lewis is a pretty good school,” according to Steve Campbell, Special Programs Coordinator for the Paso Unified School District. In part, his job is to apply for grants that will fund academic programs, and to oversee the way funds are used in the district. In theory, spending more money on lower-performing schools should yield higher test scores.

Daniel Lewis is by no means alone. This year, the number of California schools deemed to have passed the federal standard plunged. About 1,400 schools that passed last year failed this year, in large part because of a higher threshold for passing.

One of the stated goals of No Child Left Behind, according to the U.S. Department of Education, is to close the historic education gap between minority children and white children. The law created several subgroups: students with disabilities, kids considered economically disadvantaged, and “English Learners,” in addition to the old model of sorting kids by ethnicity. Theoretically, a child could fit into all of the subgroups as well as an ethnic group.

“It gives us several lenses to view a student through,” Campbell said. “Before, if a child was underperforming and considered part of a minority group, Hispanic for example, a few high-performing Hispanics could skew the data, so what this does is better target the students with needs.”

These subgroups, and all ethnic groups will be required to pass proficiency exams in progressively larger numbers every year until 2014, when every child is expected to be proficient, and hence, no child left behind. When this happens, every child will be reading and doing math above grade level—in essence, every child will be above average.

There are fundamental flaws here, Campbell acknowledged. For example, 95 percent of students in a given group must be present on test day for the school to pass. If a subgroup—which requires as few as 50 students to be considered “numerically significant”—is missing one or two students on the test day, then the whole school fails according to No Child Left Behind. If one school fails, then the whole district fails.

At Daniel Lewis, the only group that did not pass the English and Math proficiency exams were the “English Learners” a subgroup who are, by definition, not fluent in English. Campbell pointed out that since the law was enacted in 2001, the percentage of English Learners judged proficient has tripled locally. But, he said, when a student does pass proficiency exams, they are no longer considered English Learners.

Critics have argued that while No Child Left Behind does fund extra programs, it also leaves many mandates unfunded, and lets the state pick up the tab. Beyond that, many worry that too much emphasis is placed on test taking.

“No Child Left Behind has really turned education on its head,” said Mark Buchman, a trustee with Coastal Unified School District.

“It used to be: ‘Is the child learning, is the child a problem solver?’ Now, the child must score a certain number.”

No Child Left Behind works by offering federal funding to schools—President Bush asked for more than $24 billion for 2009—and in exchange the schools accept greater scrutiny. Schools that consistently fail to meet the No Child Left Behind standards face potential state intervention. In extreme circumstances, a school could be shut down.

Campbell said that much of the money Paso Robles Unified School District received has gone into after school and summer school programs, teacher training, and early interventions to catch students as soon as they start slipping academically.


Staff writer Kylie Mendonca can be reached at kmendonca@newtimesslo.com

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