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Student transfers from failing schools via No Child law swamp successful ones

Tamara Gordon leads her eighth-grade students in a history lesson in an overflow classroom at Beltsville Academy.
Tamara Gordon leads her eighth-grade students in a history lesson in an overflow classroom at Beltsville Academy. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)

Seventh-grade classes were so packed in the beginning of the school year that students had to sit on the linoleum floors because there weren't enough desks, parents said, and students have to share lockers. The double-wide trailers that provided extra capacity were also packed.

The school system quickly rolled in more trailers, which teachers decorated with cheerful posters and mismatched chairs. The brand-new principal hired four more teachers and came up with a traffic plan to ease choked hallways during passing periods.

More than half the county's schools failed to meet the No Child standards this year, up from last year, even though test scores rose modestly. Hite said the influx of transfers "adds a strain to those schools that are actually doing well," calling them "overwhelmed."

A growing chorus of education advocates shares the concern.

"Every year that the law is in existence it makes less sense," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy and a former Democratic congressional aide. "It's just overlabeling a problem without providing any help."

Nationwide, almost a fifth of middle school students who were eligible to transfer in the 2006-07 school year didn't have any choice, because none of the schools in their district met federal standards, according to a 2009 federally funded RAND study.

The Obama administration has proposed modifying the consequences for under-performing low-income schools and giving them more flexibility in addressing their problems. For example, instead of allowing students at a failing school to transfer, a school system could extend the school day at the troubled school or spend more money on retaining highly qualified teachers.

"We are taking a much more flexible approach with regard to choice," said Carmel Martin, assistant secretary in the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the Education Department. "Having this federal mandate, which is a one-size-fits-all requirement, doesn't make sense to us," she said. Around the country, only 1 percent of students who are eligible to transfer take advantage of it, she said.

But a proponent of No Child Left Behind argued that the transfer requirement has done some good, even as he acknowledged that it wasn't perfect.

"We kind of got put into a corner" during negotiations, said Sandy Kress, one of the authors of the law. "We wanted there to be greater choices, to private schools as well as across school districts." Kress said the compromise, which limited choices only to public schools, "was less desirable" and led in part to the problems school districts now face.

But the performance standards are attainable, Kress said, and the law was designed to put pressure on school systems to improve.

Parents who chose Beltsville Academy over their home school said that they were willing to trade their old, poorly performing classrooms for the crowded ones at Beltsville.

"Even with the smaller classes" at Buck Lodge Middle School, Donna Whitney's son's local school, it "just has not made it," she said. At Beltsville, where her son started the sixth grade this year, "I don't feel like I have to fight tooth and nail being an advocate for my son," she said.

Still, there was tension at Beltsville, she said, even though school staff had been accommodating.

"The parents who were already there seemed to look at the new students as pariah[s]," she said.

Those parents say that's not the case, but they question the system that led to the situation.

"If what's working in the school is working, why mess with it?" said Sevasti Nagel, who has a fourth-grader and a seventh-grader at Beltsville Academy. "The influx of students has been very confusing.

"Why isn't more money spent to make these schools achieve [the No Child standards] instead of sending their students to another school?" she said.

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