California may soon be exempt from the toughest requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which has labeled 13 Tuolumne and Calaveras County schools as failing to meet student achievement targets.
Calling No Child Left Behind an “unworkable mandate,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson applied for a waiver of the law’s most punishing requirements in June. California would instead rely on its own measures to identify and fix schools that perform poorly.
So far there has been no word from the U.S. Department of Education on whether California’s waiver application will be approved. But local educators say it’s past time to reconsider No Child Left Behind.
“Schools (that) actually provide wonderful environments for students are now questioned about whether or not they’re providing effective instruction,” said Tuolumne County Deputy Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin.
“I don’t think anyone opposes ... improvement,” she said. “It’s just that the system of labeling schools as failing might be faulty.”
By No Child Left Behind’s standards, which get more rigorous every year, eight Tuolumne County schools, five Calaveras County schools and one Calaveras district were in “Program Improvement” status.
That means that they must improve test scores or face consequences that range from ongoing restrictions on funding to state takeover, which may occur during the fourth consecutive year of Program Improvement status.
In Tuolumne County, the Program Improvement schools and districts as of fall 2011 were Tenaya Elementary School, Curtis Creek Elementary School, Jamestown Elementary School, Sonora Elementary School, Sonora Union High School District and Sonora High, Soulsbyville Elementary School, Summerville Elementary School and Summerville High School.
The Calaveras County schools and districts in Program Improvement were Bret Harte Union High School District, Calaveras River Academy, San Andreas Elementary School, Valley Springs Elementary School, West Point Elementary School and Mark Twain Elementary School.
Curtis Creek Elementary School, Sonora Union High School District, and Bret Harte Union High School District just finished their second year of Program Improvement. San Andreas Elementary School finished its third.
Bulkin said each school will get an update on their Program Improvement status in about a month, with the release of last year’s STAR test scores. The tentative schedule for releasing the test scores to the public is Aug. 31.
In addition to the schools already in Program Improvement status, Columbia Elementary School is listed by the California Department of Education as “at risk” for the designation.
So are Belleview Elementary School, Copperopolis Elementary School and all three schools in the Vallecito Union School District.
Many of the remaining schools in each county don’t receive federal funding for low-income students, exempting them from Program Improvement.
Schools or districts that do get federal funding are given the label when they fail to make the required gains in standardized test scores and other areas for two years in a row.
The law further divides each school’s population into subgroups, such as students with disabilities, and applies the same penalties if they fail to make gains as well.
To avoid Program Improvement status, about 68 percent of each elementary school’s students needed to test proficient or higher in language arts in 2011. The percentage proficient in math was set at 69 percent, with slightly lower thresholds for high schools.
The final kicker: 100 percent of students must be proficient in mathematics and language arts by 2014 for a school to avoid the dreaded Program Improvement designation.
“That’s absurd and crazy,” said Calaveras County Superintendent Kathy Northington. “We in education understand that.”
Bulkin compared the rising targets to the hurdles cleared by an Olympic medalist. They may win one year, but the next year the mark will be even higher — until clearing it is impossible.
“It just means that 100 percent of our schools will be in Program Improvement,” she said.
After receiving news that their standardized test scores have put them into Program Improvement, schools must send out a letter informing parents and giving them the option to put their students in a different school.
Many educators consider the letters the worst part of No Child Left Behind, since they portray the school as in some kind of crisis.
When Bret Harte Union High School District entered Program Improvement status last year, it had to send a letter and let parents know they could transfer their students out, according to Superintendent and Principal Michael Chimente.
Chimente said tracking student progress is important, but he would like to see STAR tests consolidated with the California High School Exit Exam. That would lessen the time students spend testing and make them more motivated to do well, he explained.
“I’m becoming more and more concerned that we’re not testing for the right reasons,” Chimente said. “It’s almost like we’re losing sight of the reasons we do the testing.”
Program Improvement can impose a financial burden on school districts, forcing them to buy supplementary materials at the same time their state funding is slashed.
“The penny-pincher in me disagrees with that,” said Summerville Union High School District Chief Business Official Tonya Midget.
This spring, Summerville High’s Board of Trustees approved the purchase of books and online material that will help struggling students catch up in language arts. The price amounted to $8,100.
It later approved the addition of a few remedial class periods at a cost of about $11,000 each, Midget said. The aim is to help students, but also to get out of Program Improvement.
Schools in Program Improvement must set aside more time and money for staff development. They also had to bring in a “technical assistance provider” to assist with meeting the requirements.
Bulkin provides that for free, as does the Calaveras County Office of Education, but schools also have the choice to hire an outside consultant.
Northington said many California school administrators initially didn’t oppose No Child Left Behind, thinking they could avoid the “ugliness” of the Program Improvement designations.