Even Top Schools Can Fall Short Under 'No Child Left Behind'

Thursday, April 14, 2005

I recently received e-mails from Montgomery County parents about reports that Montgomery Blair High School, one of the best schools in the country, had not made the required improvement in test scores, called adequate yearly progress, under the federal No Child Left Behind law last year.

Blair and other county schools have many categories of students -- low-income, special education, black, Hispanic and others -- and each must make adequate yearly progress. If any category, or subgroup, fails to reach the target, the school is labeled as needing improvement. Blair missed the mark in one category, math achievement by Hispanic students.

I welcome more messages about No Child Left Behind and how county schools should handle the challenge. Unlike at some schools in the District and Northern Virginia, Blair parents cannot transfer their children out of the school if it again fails to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, for any of its student subgroups. Blair does not receive federal anti-poverty Title I funds and is not subject to that part of the law.

If a school that receives the federal funds continues for several years to miss its achievement targets, the federal law gives the state the right to close or restructure the school, including replacing its staff. Chrisandra Richardson, Montgomery County's director of academic support for federal and state programs, said Blair would not come under federal control because it is not a Title I school and because the federal law makes states fix their schools, but it could be restructured, including "replacing all or most school staff," under state school improvement regulations, which states are required to draw up under No Child Left Behind.

Susan Traiman, a Montgomery Blair parent who lives in Silver Spring, said she did not like to hear educators at Blair say that failing to make adequate yearly progress would make their working lives more difficult and perhaps lead to them losing their jobs.

"What would be far more useful than trying to figure out how to game the system," Traiman said, "would be an honest look at Blair's student achievement data and an analysis of what is contributing to student achievement at Blair and what is not. Are students who enter Blair behind grade level in reading and math identified and provided with an intensified experience to catch up? Is information communicated back to the feeder middle and elementary schools to help better align their curriculum with high school expectations? Is the Connections curriculum [a course that prepares ninth-graders for high school] helping students achieve at Blair? Does each course have a curriculum aligned with regular assessments, instructional materials and teacher professional development?

"Do the students get regular feedback on how they are doing in the courses? Are teachers with the least experience distributed equally among below-grade level, on-grade level, honors, and magnet/cap students? The issue is that most of Blair's Hispanic students aren't proficient in math, not that a few more students passing would have made Blair able to look like everything's okay."

Traiman sent an e-mail from an expert on the No Child Left Behind law, Dianne M. Piche, executive director of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights. Piche said she noticed that Blair missed the mark with Hispanic math achievement and said "my son's school, the nearby Springbrook [High School], also very diverse, made AYP in all categories."

Piche had advice for Montgomery County parents: "What they ought to do is go onto the MSDE [Maryland State Department of Education] Web site, http://www.marylandpublicschools.org/ , and look up the pass rates on the state High School Assessments, which will soon be required for graduation. They will find huge gaps in passing rates between white and Asian and African American and Latino students. In both schools, a majority of black and Latino kids are not passing these tests.

"What are these principals doing about that? It's not the state or the Bush administration they need to worry about, but these kids and their parents."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company