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By the Mississippi Delta, A Whole School Left Behind

Shatarya McGhee, foreground; DeMontray Houston, center; and Tyronza Thompson at Como Elementary, where math and reading test scores rank last among Mississippi schools.
Shatarya McGhee, foreground; DeMontray Houston, center; and Tyronza Thompson at Como Elementary, where math and reading test scores rank last among Mississippi schools. (By Peter Whoriskey -- The Washington Post)
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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2007

COMO, Miss. -- Of all the nation's elementary schools, the one serving this poor, rural crossroads is at the bottom of the heap.

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Its math and reading test scores ranked at the bottom in Mississippi last year, and Mississippi, in turn, ranked last among the states.

"We're just light-years behind," said Versa Brown, the school's new principal.

Como Elementary is, in other words, just the sort of school that was supposed to benefit from the landmark No Child Left Behind law, which is up for reauthorization by Congress.

But in Como and other poor, rural districts around the country, the law's regimen of testing and sanctions has had little, if any, effect.

Despite abysmal test scores, Como earned a passing grade under No Child Left Behind, largely because the standards of student proficiency, which are determined individually by the states, have been set so low in Mississippi. Its small size also exempts it from some standards. The resulting passing grade -- it makes "adequate yearly progress" -- has exempted Como Elementary from any of the corrective actions dictated by the law.

But the more fundamental difficulty, administrators said, is that while the law requires schools to have "highly qualified teachers," places such as Como face critical difficulties in attracting any teachers at all. The location is remote, the salaries are low, and its at-risk students are arguably more difficult to teach.

More than a third of Como's 32 teachers are new this year, and five of those have been hired with an "emergency license" because they lack full teacher training. At least three of the new teachers had been dismissed or released from other schools. One resigned after just a few weeks when he was found hiding from the third-graders in his class who were throwing papers at him.

"Has No Child Left Behind done some good things? Sure," said the state's superintendent of schools, Hank Bounds. "But in many places like the Mississippi Delta, I would have to say no."

He rejected the notion that raising test standards -- without somehow persuading legions of motivated teachers to move in -- would help students.

"It's easy to put your bow tie on every day and say, 'If Mississippi would just do X then you would see Y results,' " he said.

As Congress this fall begins considering the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, at least some of the law's effects on places such as Como Elementary are being rethought. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House committee overseeing the reauthorization, said the law should help states recruit teachers and give them incentives to develop stronger standards.

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