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Schools fall short on No Child Left Behind Act standard

By Brenda J. Buote
Globe Correspondent / November 17, 2011

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As Massachusetts seeks a reprieve from a federal education law, a growing number of educators throughout Boston’s northern suburbs are being forced to take a hard look at their teaching methods after being told their schools are not making the grade.

Of the 418 public schools in the Globe North region, 248 - nearly 59 percent - have failed to improve standardized test scores fast enough to meet a key mandate of the No Child Left Behind Act. Under the law, every student must demonstrate proficiency in English language arts and math by 2014.

“We have led the urban schools in terms of increasing our test scores, so our students are performing and improving, but the goals are unrealistic,’’ said Patricia M. Capano, vice chairwoman of the Lynn School Committee, which oversees one of the largest school districts in the region, with 13,547 students. “We had nearly 500 new students show up in September. They aren’t coming from across town or across the state line. They’re coming from different countries, different continents.’’

Capano, who has served on the School Committee for 14 years, said the challenges for urban districts are compounded because the student body is in constant flux as families move in or out of the district and funding for remedial programs is cut.

“Funding is the decision driver because the needs are far greater than the pot of money we have,’’ said Capano. “It’s a shame. Because we are labeled underperforming, we are pouring time and money on chasing data when we would rather be directing our limited resources to educating kids.’’

Schools are judged based on student performance on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam, along with other measures, including attendance and graduation rates. A Globe review found that in most local schools, students fared well overall, but one or more subgroups failed to keep pace, making the school a target of federal scrutiny.

State education officials on Monday joined a growing chorus of states seeking relief from certain provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, including the 100 percent proficiency goal, after more than half the schools in the state were designated in need of improvement.

The law requires education officials to track the performance of the overall student population within each school and school system, and of 16 subgroups, including several ethnic groups, bilingual students, students with special needs, and children who receive free or reduced-price lunch.

Schools and districts that fail to make “adequate yearly progress’’ as defined by the law for two or more consecutive years end up on a federal watch list and must take action to improve student performance in either English or math, or both.

Of the 248 local schools on this year’s watch list, 151 were deemed in need of “restructuring,’’ the worst of three categories, in at least one content area for lagging behind federal standards for at least five consecutive years. The schools must plan or implement at least one restructuring step outlined under the federal act. Those include reopening the school as a public charter school; hiring a private management company to operate the school as a public school; or turning operation of the school over to the state.

Four of the schools in the restructuring category - Bentley Elementary School in Salem; and the Business Management and Finance High School, International High School, and James F. Leonard Middle School, all in Lawrence - were labeled “underperforming’’ and placed on an “accelerated turnaround path’’ by state educators on Tuesday and given three years to make substantial change and improvement. The designation was created last year to help the state’s neediest schools, those that consistently earned low scores on the math and English sections of the MCAS test over a four-year period. Statewide, 40 schools have been labeled “underperforming.’’

In 2006, facing the possibility of a state takeover, educators at Silver Hill Elementary School in Haverhill decided to convert the traditional public school into a Horace Mann charter school.

In its initial years as a charter school, Silver Hill students posted significant gains on the MCAS exam, but the most recent test results show a plateau in student achievement. As test scores climb, it becomes more difficult for the students to hit the benchmarks required because there is less room for improvement, said Chris Jayne, Silver Hill principal.

“Our scores were pretty good, but we’d like to see more growth,’’ said Jayne. “It’s very difficult. Forty-five percent of our kids are coming from impoverished homes. And with the economy being what it is, our funding is also being cut.’’

Jayne said that the school is using a computer program to chart individual student performance on the MCAS test. Educators also are analyzing the exam results to see whether teaching methods need to be revised in particular content areas.

Similar self-examination has been mandated for the 44 local schools that were told this year that they must take at least one “corrective action’’ specified by the law to improve student performance, such as embracing a new curriculum, replacing staff, or restructuring the school’s internal organization.

In addition, 112 local schools were “identified for improvement,’’ the least severe category, for failing to meet federal benchmarks for at least two consecutive years. As a result, they must review and revise school improvement plans to ensure their teaching methods are effective.

At some of those schools, educators must offer tutoring services to help boost student performance. At others, including Winchester’s Lynch Elementary School, parents have the option of transferring their child to another school within the district.

As the parents of Lynch students decide whether they want their child to change schools, Winchester School Committee member Sarah Swiger said it’s important for them to be mindful of the fact that the town was dealing with MCAS long before No Child Left Behind, and that they are two different issues.

Swiger called the MCAS exams “a very useful tool’’ for gauging student performance and measuring the efficacy of teaching methods and curriculum.

No Child Left Behind, “while it includes very good goals, takes attention away from what we really need to do to improve the kids’ knowledge,’’ she said. “It puts things in the political realm and takes the focus out of the classroom realm, where we should be directing our efforts.’’

Chelsea Superintendent Mary Bourque said she is hopeful that a review of the Massachusetts waiver application will give federal education officials a better idea “of what we’re doing in education for our students and what we have yet to do.’’

Eighty-two percent of schools across the Commonwealth missed testing targets this year, up from 67 percent last year. More than 64 percent of Massachusetts schools are now classified as being in need of improvement, corrective action, or restructuring, in part because the state standards for student proficiency are among the highest in the country; under the federal mandate, each state was left to set its own standards.

“No Child Left Behind is widely viewed as a desperately flawed law,’’ said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “Here in Massachusetts, we have the highest performing kids, but the highest number of schools failing to meet [the law’s] standards because we set the bar so high.’’

In September, President Obama announced a plan that allows states to apply for waivers of certain requirements of the law. In its waiver application, Massachusetts seeks a reprieve from the mandated goal of reaching 100 percent proficiency by 2014 and the requirement to identify schools in need of improvement, corrective action, or restructuring, noting that the requirements mislabel strong schools as falling short.

Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said the cornerstone of the proposed plan is an ambitious goal to cut proficiency gaps in half by 2017. About 40 states have applied for waivers. Federal officials are expected to review each state’s waiver application in December.

The Lynn School Committee last month unanimously voted to support the state’s waiver request, noting that a more equitable and accurate assessment of student performance is needed.

“Our attention is on academic growth, not on challenges that are simply unattainable,’’ said Capano. “That is what we are trying to bring to light.’’

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.