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Rural Miss. elementary school falls behind

Struggles to meet goals of 'No Child'

(From left) Shatarya McGhee, DeMontray Houston, and Tyonza Thompson are students at struggling Como Elementary. (From left) Shatarya McGhee, DeMontray Houston, and Tyonza Thompson are students at struggling Como Elementary. (Peter Whoriskey/Washington Post)
Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Whoriskey
The Washington Post / November 11, 2007

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

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.

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.

"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."

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. Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, chairman of the House committee overseeing the reauthorization, said the law should help states recruit teachers and give them incentives to develop stronger standards.

On the edge of the Mississippi Delta about 45 minutes south of Memphis, Como is a small town surrounded by fields. About 25 percent or more of the population is white, but only a handful of whites, about 1 percent, attend the public schools. Como Elementary's student body is 99 percent black, and most of the students live in poverty, many in tattered mobile homes.

Some teachers have to buy books and other basic supplies for their classrooms, and then take their neediest students to Wal-Mart to buy clothes and backpacks. Challenged by poverty, indifferent parents, and transient teacher ranks, Como Elementary scored dismally on Mississippi's annual school tests.

According to the government tests known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or the "Nation's Report Card," Mississippi ranks last among states in combined math and reading scores for fourth-graders, the only elementary grade in the survey.

And within Mississippi, Como sits at the bottom for test scores. The combined reading and math scores for grades 2 through 6 - the earliest grades are not tested - were among the bottom three in the state. The state as a result recognizes Como as a "low-performing school."

A report by the Education Trust is telling: While the state has judged that 89 percent of its fourth-graders are reading proficiently, the federal tests assert that only 18 percent are.

"There are clearly some state tests that are too easy," said John Cronin, a researcher at the Northwest Evaluation Association and coauthor of a paper on the subject called "The Proficiency Illusion."

Faced with criticism over its testing standards, Mississippi is planning to raise them next year.

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