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A Study in Pride, Progress

Francine Jefferson, a peer professional to instructors, greets Jasmine Thompson (10, 4th grade) at back to school night at Maury Elementary School in Alexandria, VA. Behind principal Lucretia Jackson, Maury has shown a big jump in test scores after years at the lowest point in the city.
Francine Jefferson, a peer professional to instructors, greets Jasmine Thompson (10, 4th grade) at back to school night at Maury Elementary School in Alexandria, VA. Behind principal Lucretia Jackson, Maury has shown a big jump in test scores after years at the lowest point in the city. (Jahi Chikwendiu - TWP - Jahi Chikwendiu)

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2006

News of the latest state test results blew softly through the remodeled halls of Maury Elementary School in June like a welcome breeze. Reports were that fifth-graders at Maury, the lowest-scoring school in Alexandria, had done much better on the writing test.

It was good to hear, but it would take more than a favorable rumor to boost the reputation of the little red-brick school on Russell Road and remove its "needs improvement" label, imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

No school in the Washington area has felt more severely the weight of the 2002 law that not only tracks how well children do on state testing but also demands that schools improve their performance every year. In 2004, Maury students passed the state reading test at the lowest rate in Alexandria: 38 percent of third-graders and 59 percent of fifth-graders passed.

That triggered a provision of the law that allows parents to transfer their children to a better-performing school. Maury's enrollment dropped from 166 to 131. Middle-class parents were the first to leave, pushing the school's percentage of low-income children above 80 percent.

Maury was one of about 425 -- 12 percent -- of Virginia, Maryland and District schools on the "needs improvement" list and was a crucial test of the No Child Left Behind law. Some educators say the law, with its sanctions and labels, will force low-income, persistently low-performing schools such as Maury to improve. Others say it will drag them down and scare away families.

Stories like Maury's, said Frederick M. Hess, director of educational policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, "are the crucible. They become models of what can or cannot be done."

For months after those first faint signs of an improvement in June, the staff and parents at Maury, as well as city school officials, waited to see whether the efforts of a new principal and a regiment of committed teachers and volunteer tutors had been enough. Had Maury made "adequate yearly progress," or "AYP," the most frequently uttered initials in any conversation about No Child Left Behind?

And if there was success, would there be enough momentum to keep Maury off future lists of low-performing schools?

Monte E. Dawson, Alexandria schools' executive director for testing and evaluation, was the man in charge of Maury's battle to convince state education officials that Maury should come off the list. He described the process as a matter of judgment. It would, he said, be rather like sampling a new and supposedly improved wine.

"You are swirling the wine around," Dawson said. "The judge might say, 'I like the bouquet, but it tastes like dreck.' "

The answer would be far from simple. Before Maury could escape its failing designation, it would have to survive a sometimes bewildering statistical exercise, comparing its old scores with its new ones and past achievements of its poorest students with their new attainments.

Down to the state Department of Education in Richmond went dozens of pages of statistics, including the passing rates of Hispanic fifth-graders on math tests, the passing rates of disabled students on science tests and comparisons of Maury's results with state averages. Even the number of student fights had to be tallied.


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