'No Child,' No Problem: School In Ocean City Nails Its Target

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

OCEAN CITY -- The goal of the No Child Left Behind Act is that every child attain proficiency in reading and math by 2014. At most of the 1,455 public schools in Maryland, teachers and principals regard that scenario as improbable, even laughable.

At one school, the target has been met.

Last spring, all 184 students in the third and fourth grades at Ocean City Elementary School passed the Maryland School Assessment, or MSA, a battery of tests given by the state every year since 2003 to satisfy the law.

The school was the first in the state, apart from a few tiny special-education centers, to meet the goal that has defined public education this decade.

"We think of MSA as the floor, as sort of the basics of what all students should be doing," Principal Irene Kordick said. "We shoot for the ceiling."

The notion that every child should be able to pass a test of grade-level work has challenged, divided and confounded the education community. The law, signed by President Bush in 2002, holds schools accountable for the progress of all children, in the belief that each of them can learn. It's a popular notion that few educators would publicly dispute, but it is a goal few schools in the region have been able to meet.

Four Virginia schools attained 100 percent proficiency last year on the Standards of Learning exams, that state's measure of achievement under No Child Left Behind. One was Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet school that serves many of the brightest students in Northern Virginia. The others: a pair of magnet schools in Virginia Beach and a small alternative high school in Richmond.

In affluent swaths of Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Howard counties, no school has attained more than 98 or 99 percent proficiency on the MSA. Top schools often are held back from statistical perfection by a handful of students receiving special education or learning English as a second language. Seven Locks Elementary in Bethesda, one of the most affluent communities in the nation, achieved universal proficiency in reading last year but fell short by three students in math, all in special education.

Some education leaders have said the No Child Left Behind law's mandate is inflexible and unrealistic, particularly with regard to disadvantaged students. Much of the education community assumes the goal of 100 percent proficiency will be relaxed or abandoned well before the 2014 deadline.

But between now and then, the law requires that schools show progress toward the goal of 100 percent proficiency. This year, Maryland schools must show that at least 61 percent of students are proficient in math and 70 percent in reading, an increase of seven and five points, respectively, over last year's targets. Many schools will not manage even that.

So how did Ocean City Elementary achieve perfection?

The school serves 568 students in a coastal resort town with an odd mix of families -- in oceanfront condominiums, middle-class colonials and Coastal Highway trailers. The student population is 89 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic, 3 percent black, 2 percent Asian and 1 percent American Indian. Twenty-nine students have limited English proficiency, and 134 qualify for subsidized meals because of low family income.

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