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Flunking an Unfair Test

Piney Branch students are making impressive progress. But the No Child Left Behind Act's one-size-fits-all approach ignores that.

Sunday, October 24, 2004; Page B08

For a textbook case of what is wrong with the No Child Left Behind Act, look no farther than Piney Branch Elementary School.

This Takoma Park school, for children in grades three through five, showed impressive gains in student test scores last year, but it still was classified as "in need of improvement" -- the category given to schools in which most of the students are struggling.

Why? Because in many respects, the No Child Left Behind law was designed and is being implemented in a way that maximizes the possibility that a school will be considered a failure, no matter how good a job it is doing.

In the past school year, Piney Branch raised reading scores for its third-grade African American students by 30 points, cutting in half the achievement gap between white and black students. Test scores also rose significantly for its fifth-graders in all subjects and for its African American students in all grades in math.

Piney Branch met the law's "adequate yearly progress" goals in reading and math for all students and in the following specified categories: white; African American; Asian; Hispanic; low-income (eligible for free or reduced-price meals); and limited English proficiency. This progress is particularly important considering the school's diversity -- it is 43 percent African American, 32 percent white, 20 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian. Forty-two percent of its students receive free or reduced-priced lunches. As a result, Piney Branch is a "Title I" school, meaning that it serves a large proportion of low-income students.

But the No Child Left Behind Act treats Piney Branch as a failure because it missed its adequate yearly progress goal in just one sub-category -- math for special education students. This category involved 28 students out of a student body of 510, and the same students met their reading goal.

Any law designed to hold schools accountable for student performance might reasonably require Piney Branch to focus on improving math instruction for special education students. But it also would not rely on one standardized test as the sole arbiter of student performance. Unfortunately, the No Child Left Behind Act isn't reasonable. Its one-size-fits-all provisions treat Piney Branch no differently than a school at which students are not achieving at the levels that they should.

Piney Branch is now subject to the same sanctions that are imposed on schools that really are performing poorly. Its students are free to transfer to another public school, and if Piney Branch stays in its current status for another year, it will have to provide "supplemental services" such as tutoring for all low-income students -- without necessarily receiving any resources to pay for the services.

One additional year of missing any one target would subject the school to "corrective action," such as the wholesale firing of staff even if most of Piney Branch's students continue to show improvement.

Little wonder that many teachers and principals do not see the No Child Left Behind Act as a tool for raising student performance but rather as a law written to guarantee that no matter how hard they work or how well they educate their students, they will be treated as failures.

Even more discouraging, the law's penalties and sanctions have taken effect without the resources that President Bush and Congress promised schools to help meet the new standards. For example, the White House budget for No Child Left Behind programs for this fiscal year is $8 billion less than the amount promised in the 2001 law. Similarly, the budget for special education -- particularly relevant in the case of Piney Branch -- is $11 billion less than the amount promised under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.

So while schools such as Piney Branch are being held fully accountable for student performance, the president and members of Congress are not.

The goal of Leave No Child Behind could not be more important, but to make it a reality, the law's many flaws must be fixed. Only then will its promise be fulfilled.

-- Bruce Kozarsky

-- Megan Scribner

are parents of a fifth-grader at Piney

Branch Elementary School.

kozarsky@starpower.net


© 2004 The Washington Post Company