After Fairfax Misses Target, Officials Cite 'No Child' Flaws

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 25, 2007

Fairfax County schools boast SAT scores significantly higher than the national average. More than 93 percent of graduates go on to college or trade schools. And the dropout rate is low.

But this week, the school system was given a new -- and negative -- label: failure to meet academic goals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Fairfax educators say the system as a whole, along with 68 of its schools, fell short largely as the result of tighter federal testing requirements for students with limited English skills. Officials and parents now face the question of whether the rating will tarnish the district's reputation.

Liz McGhan, mother of three children in Fairfax schools and president of Garfield Elementary School's PTA, said the rating doesn't change her positive view of the schools.

"For me personally, and for other people I talk to, school scores are not everything about the school," McGhan said. "I think a majority of the parents understand what's going on behind all the numbers. There's so much more to a school than the testing."

School and county officials, who often cite the quality of schools as a lure for businesses and residents, argue that Fairfax's situation illustrates flaws in the federal law.

"This is not a question of academic performance. It's a question of a rigid law," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Board of Supervisors. "The No Child Left Behind law does not make allowances for a highly diverse school systems such as we have in Northern Virginia."

Federal officials disagree. They say that all students must be held to the same standards and that Virginia had ample time to adjust to testing requirements. "We know that some limited English students need an alternative assessment," U.S. Education Department spokesman Chad Colby said. "We're working with states, but [Virginia] could have done that going back to 2003."

Many other Virginia school systems fell short of academic targets. But some reached them, including those in Chesapeake, Roanoke County and Virginia Beach.

The federal law, which aims to shine a light on blocs of struggling students and allow schools to pinpoint areas that need improvement, requires annual reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. It also requires schools, and school systems, to show steady progress in improving scores. Subsets of students -- including ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, those with limited English skills and those from low-income families -- also must show gains each year. If one group does not meet the target, the school or district may be designated as not making "adequate yearly progress," or AYP.

Several other Northern Virginia school systems, including those in Alexandria and in Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington counties, also did not meet targets on the spring 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.

Education experts say school systems nationwide are experiencing similar increases. Each year, it is tougher for schools to meet standards, because states raise performance targets as they move toward the goal of having every child proficient in reading and math by 2014.

In Maryland, for instance, the number of elementary and middle schools targeted for academic improvement because of low test scores rose this year from 167 to 176, the largest total since the No Child law was enacted in 2002.

"The crunch is starting to be felt," said Jack Jennings, president and chief executive of the D.C.-based Center on Education Policy. "There's more tests, and there's a higher bar. The game is getting more challenging."

The experience of Northern Virginia, and the question of whether student performance on standardized tests should be the sole measure of a school's success, is expected to play a significant role this fall as lawmakers debate reauthorization of the federal law. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), House education committee chairman, has called for additional measures, such as graduation rates or the number of students passing Advanced Placement exams, to be included in the ratings.

Michele Menapace, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, said parents who are not familiar with the intricacies of the federal law might question principals and school officials about the county's ratings.

"I don't think people will be up in arms, but I think there will be questions asked," Menapace said. "There has been a great deal of confusion. All they see is that their school didn't make AYP, and they don't understand all the testing groups."

Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale said he is not concerned about the label.

"What I hear from the community is, AYP information has become meaningless," Dale said. "Our parents want to know how kids are doing on a broad spectrum of assessments."

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