Calls Grow for a Broader Yardstick for Schools

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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2007

For nearly six years, the federal government has defined school success mainly by how many students pass state reading and math tests. But a growing number of educators and lawmakers are pushing to give more weight to graduation rates, achievement in science and history and even physical education.

The debate over the formula for rating the nation's public schools has stalled efforts in Congress to revise the No Child Left Behind law. At issue: What's the best way to measure whether schools are doing their job?

Unlike questions on the state math and reading tests taken by millions of children, this one has no clear answer. Reaching consensus in the coming election year is expected to be difficult. Without congressional action, the 2002 law will stay as it is.

"Lots of stakeholders have different answers to this question," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a D.C.-based coalition of urban school systems. "The tug of war is over, if not state assessments, then what? You're ultimately going to get as many answers to the question as there are people to answer it."

The American Society of Civil Engineers wants science tests added to the mix. The NAACP and other groups say schools should get credit for achievement in subjects other than reading and math, as well as for improvement in graduation and college admission rates. Some want to give schools points for progress on locally developed tests and for increasing the number of students who excel in Advanced Placement classes.

Reps. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) say the law should push children to exercise more than their brains. They introduced a bill to give schools points if students spend more time on physical education.

Advocates for "multiple measures" say that learning is too complex to be judged by annual tests and argue that spontaneity and creativity in classrooms are being lost to test preparation and drills.

"There ought to be more in determining students' success than just one test score," said Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union. "Preparing a child for the 21st century means reading and math. But it also means science; it means civics; it means art."

But the Bush administration and some civil rights, education and business groups say that too many tweaks would weaken a law credited with revealing pockets of struggling students, especially among poor children, minorities and those with disabilities. In their view, an overly complex rating system would mask problems in schools with many students who haven't mastered basic reading and math, skills they call the building blocks to success.

"Proponents of multiple measures say it will give a richer, fuller view of a school, but this isn't about a rich view of a school. It's about failures in fundamental gate-keeping subject areas," said Amy Wilkins, a vice president of the Education Trust, a D.C.-based advocate of better schools for the disadvantaged. "Parents know, 'My school is in trouble because it's not teaching reading and math.' "

At Charles H. Flowers High School in Prince George's County, where test scores in reading and math have usually met state benchmarks, the principal, Helena Nobles-Jones, said: "It's okay to add other factors, but they can't replace reading and math." The two subjects, she said, "are so very critical to any career a child would choose."

The law requires annual reading and math tests in third through eighth grades and once in high school. Schools and subsets of students -- including ethnic minorities and students from poor families -- must make gains over time. High schools also must reach target graduation rates, but the state goals have been criticized as weak and inconsistent.

Certain schools that don't meet standards are required to allow students to transfer or face other sanctions. The law aims to have 100 percent of children proficient in reading and math by 2014. But the ratings are more about identifying struggling schools than rewarding excellence.

George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House education committee, has been trying to craft a definition of school success that goes beyond standardized tests. In a draft bill he circulated last summer, math and reading scores would remain the biggest factors in rating schools. But schools also could gain points for raising science, history, civics or writing scores or increasing the number of students who succeed in college preparatory courses. The proposal would establish a national system to measure graduation rates, and high schools could be rewarded for progress.

Miller said such changes would encourage schools to lower dropout rates, broaden the curriculum and encourage more disadvantaged students to enroll in challenging classes. He said he aims to provide a "better, fairer picture of what's happening in schools."

But some GOP leaders say the picture would only become murkier. Under the law, parents can see how their school stacks up against others across town or across the state on the same exams. If some groups of students struggle, it shows.

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (Calif.), the top Republican on the education committee, said the law lets parents "cut through the clutter and see clearly how their children's schools are performing." Add too many measures, he said, and accountability would be lost.

Many advocates for children with disabilities agree. Ricki Sabia, associate director of the National Down Syndrome Society's Policy Center, said the law has forced schools to focus more on children with special needs. "What we've seen in the past five years is kids with disabilities are doing better than anyone expected," Sabia said. "We are very wary of seeing things roll back."

Likewise, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund applauds the law for drawing attention to Latino student achievement. The organization isn't opposed to adding measures, said Peter Zamora, a regional counsel for the group, as long as the system "can't be easily gamed."

But many educators report increasing pressure to tailor lessons to annual state exams, leading students to miss out on other educational opportunities.

"The fear is you have this narrowing of the breadth and depth" of the curriculum, said Elizabeth Burmaster, Wisconsin's state superintendent. Burmaster, president of the Council of Chief State School Officers and a former music and drama teacher, supports using local assessments together with state tests. "It's much more complicated," she said. "But it's more accurate."

Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, said the challenge is creating a rating system that includes a range of measures and provides a clear picture of a school's effectiveness.

"Most schools people -- and a lot of people who think about schools -- think school is about a bunch of different things, not just reading and math," Loveless said. "The problem is . . . as you list all those things, suddenly it's not as clear-cut what's a successful school and what's a failing school."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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