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The Wrong Yardstick

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By Jay Mathews
Sunday, April 13, 2008

BARCROFT ELEMENTARY SCHOOL IS AN EDUCATIONAL JEWEL, with enthusiastic teachers in a sparkling building overseen by one of the most admired principals in the region. So why has the South Arlington school failed to meet its federal student achievement targets each of the past three years?

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Most of the students are from low-income black or Hispanic families, and more than half are still learning to speak English. Children from those backgrounds tend to get less academic support at home than do students from middle-class families. But Barcroft parents, affluent or not, still speak of the school as a pedagogical nirvana. "All of the teachers and the principal are intelligent, loving, energetic, interesting people who care deeply for each and every child," says Carol Hunter, whose three children have attended the school. Pamela Holcomb said her kindergarten son receives instruction from six educators -- a primary teacher, an assistant, and art, music, Spanish and physical education teachers -- all "actively engaged in his development and enrichment."

The principal is a 5-foot-tall swirl of energy named Miriam Hughey-Guy. She has a shelf full of education awards. She calls all 340 students by name. Few principals are so popular with their teachers. She listens to their ideas, as many principals do, then astonishes staff members by giving them the green light and helping them over the rough spots. That is how Barcroft developed its signature program, the Leonardo da Vinci Project, which explores the life of that most versatile of Italian artists through the school's science, math, literature, art and music classes.

Yet Barcroft still missed AYP, as the educrats call it. AYP, or adequate yearly progress, is a long list of test score benchmarks each public school in the United States must reach to avoid being labeled "needing improvement" and being forced to make major changes in how it educates its pupils. The idea of telling Barcroft to do better makes state and federal officials uncomfortable. Hughey-Guy, who has led intervention teams to help struggling schools in other parts of the state, is already doing everything officials would ask her to do.

It has been a close call each of the three years the school has missed AYP. Last year, if just seven more students with limited English proficiency had passed their state reading tests, the school likely would have made it. Who is to blame? For many school experts, this is like being asked if snack time is messy. The answer is obvious: That hideous federal law, No Child Left Behind, which they say forces great schools to grind all their rich contributions to children's lives into a sausage sliced thin enough to fit into the prescribed statistical slots. The Virginia General Assembly is so convinced of this point that it passed a bill last month encouraging the state Board of Education to consider pulling out of the federal accountability system.

While following Hughey-Guy around the school one recent afternoon and talking to her teachers, I gave them every opportunity to blame the ravages of poverty, to blame the bureaucratic insistence on giving tests in English to children who have not had time to learn the language and, particularly, to blame the law. They declined to check any of those boxes. Whom did they blame? Themselves.

Hughey-Guy once started one sentence with the word "because," and I thought she might mention some outside force hurting her school. But she caught herself. "No because," she said. "There is no excuse!" Missing AYP "is mind-boggling, but it is something we have to work on."

Next year, a new president will likely negotiate significant changes to No Child Left Behind with Congress. Nearly every expert in the country says those will include the kind of measure that Hughey-Guy and her teachers want, in which schools such as Barcroft are judged on how much each child improves each year, not on whether average scores reach somewhat arbitrary benchmarks. These experts say the benchmark system is clumsy and deceptive and will soon be dead as a goldfish left in the care of kindergartners. Even Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says she is willing to give a break to schools like Barcroft that miss their mark by just a little.

But Hughey-Guy and her faculty refuse to embrace easy political solutions. This is their calling -- helping students improve -- and they say they are going to do that no matter what yardstick the policymakers pull out. If anything, missing AYP is for them a useful motivator, the kind of challenge they like to give their students. They are adding foreign language classes, which are rarely seen in other elementary schools. Their year-round calendar, eliminating any long summer break, is among a few in the region. Barcroft has class sizes of no more than 20 students, and usually fewer.

The law says parents whose children attend schools that miss AYP two years in a row may transfer them elsewhere, but none at Barcroft have done so. Who would want to miss the author visits and trips to Jamestown and da Vinci fairs and book exchanges? Who would want to abandon teachers who blame themselves, and not parents, or politicians, or fate, for any bad news? Parents believe in Barcroft. As Holcomb said, "It's just amazing to see in action."

Jay Mathews covers schools for The Post. He can be reached at mathewsj@washpost.com.


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