By Maria Glod and Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 24, 2007
The Fairfax County school system for the first time failed to meet academic goals under the No Child Left Behind Act, largely because many students with limited English skills struggled on reading tests that were given in response to a federal order, according to school officials and scores released yesterday.
Several other well-regarded Northern Virginia systems, including those in Alexandria and in Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington counties, also fell short of target scores on last spring's Standards of Learning tests. The number of Northern Virginia schools that did not make the grade nearly doubled, rising from 76 in 2006 to 146 this year.
Under the federal law, schools and school systems must reach benchmark pass rates for state reading and math scores that climb steadily over time. For schools and systems that fall short of adequate progress, the harshest penalty is usually negative publicity. But schools that receive federal aid for disadvantaged students face sanctions if they repeatedly miss targets, from a requirement to allow student transfers to management shake-ups.
Overall, test scores held steady in Northern Virginia and showed gains in some areas, notably middle school mathematics. But school ratings dipped because the federal law requires scores for all groups of students to show advances simultaneously.
Local educators blamed the ratings slide on a federal rule requiring students who are English beginners to take reading tests similar to those taken by peers who are fluent in the language. Previously, those students were tested on how quickly they were learning to read and speak English, not on their understanding of concepts such as metaphors and main ideas.
School officials in Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington, all counties with increasingly diverse populations, have called the requirement unfair to students who haven't mastered the language. Fairfax schools this year threatened to defy the U.S. Education Department but backed down because the county stood to lose $17 million in federal aid.
"What we have been telling the nation and the federal government is that children who are not yet competent in English are not going to pass a reading test," Fairfax County Superintendent Jack D. Dale said yesterday. "It takes a few years to master English, and when they know English, they pass."
Fairfax school officials said the number of students passing with especially high marks, a category known as "pass advanced," is growing. In Loudoun, English learners were the only group that had a dip in pass rates this year.
Dale said he hopes Congress will take Northern Virginia's experience into account and come up with new ways to measure school progress as lawmakers debate reauthorization of the five-year-old federal law.
"Since we're close to Washington, I hope we have some influence," Dale said. "We're representative of the rest of the nation. . . . The English language learner issue for us is huge, but it's also huge in a lot of other jurisdictions."
Jack Jennings, president and chief executive of the D.C.-based Center on Education Policy, said lawmakers are struggling to find a rigorous but fair way to test the more than 5 million limited-English students nationwide.
Federal officials and some advocacy groups say tough standards are the only way to ensure that immigrant students and others with limited English aren't overlooked. They say such tests help schools pinpoint how programs fall short.
"There are complaints from . . . people across the country that their school districts feel the testing is unfair," Jennings said. "At the same time, the advocates say that's the only way kids are going to get extra attention."
The federal law calls for annual reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and it requires schools to show steady progress in improving scores or face consequences. Subgroups of students -- including ethnic minorities and students with disabilities, limited English skills and economic disadvantages -- also must make progress each year.
Schools in Virginia and nationwide aim higher over time as they move toward a goal of having every child proficient in reading and math by 2014. This year in Virginia, 73 percent of students in each school had to pass a reading exam, up from 69 percent last year. The goal in math increased from 67 percent to 71 percent.
Under the law, schools that receive federal poverty aid and fall short of testing targets face sanctions that become more stringent if scores don't improve. This year, there are 13 such schools in Northern Virginia.
Catoctin Elementary in Leesburg, the first Loudoun school to face sanctions, must offer parents the opportunity to send children to a school that fared better. The school did not achieve high enough marks among Hispanic students.
Arlington's Hoffman-Boston Elementary School has missed targets for several years and must continue offering students tutoring and the choice to attend another school. If it does not make adequate progress next year, it could be subject to more drastic remedies, including staff changes or restructuring.
In Prince William, nearly half the county's 79 schools didn't meet standards. Old Bridge Elementary in Woodbridge fell short solely because of poor reading scores among English learners.
"It's a bitter pill to swallow," Old Bridge Principal Anita Flemons said. "If you think I'm a little upset about it, you are right." She needed 54 of 78 English learners to earn a passing score, and 52 did.
Falling short, even by a slim margin, has a "mental impact" on the school community, Flemons said. But she said she is determined to work even harder with English learners to improve their literacy.
"I just wish they would take into consideration that the challenges are very different in different schools," she said. "Many children coming to us from other countries have not had formal education. It's like comparing an apple to a banana. But there are no allowances for that."
Fairfax officials said test scores show that students enrolled in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program are making progress. For instance, 35 percent of county fifth-graders in the beginning levels of the program passed the reading test; 83 percent of those who were almost finished with it passed.
Arlington School Superintendent Robert G. Smith noted that many of the English learners fared well on math tests that use simple language.
Billy K. Cannaday Jr., state superintendent of public instruction, said that Virginia also is working with the federal government to create a new reading test for English learners but that it is unlikely to be ready by the spring.
"Regrettably, next year could be a similar experience for some youngsters," Cannaday said.
Staff writer Tara Bahrampour contributed to this report.