No Child leaves questions behind

Students transfer in Columbia under NCLB
Tuesday, October 13, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 2:23 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Shelby Barnett, 8, Ella Chapin, 3, and Gus Barnett, 7, leave their house in the Vanderveen Subdivision for Fairview Elementary School on September 29.. Their mother, Sarah Chapin, transferred Shelby to Fairview after Shelby's previous school, Parkade Elementary, fell below the yearly standard set by the No Child Left Behind Act.

COLUMBIA — After only one year at Parkade Elementary School, Shelby Barnett transferred to Fairview Elementary School under the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. This was two years ago, after Columbia's Title I schools began falling below the yearly test-score standards set by the federal government and parents began being able to transfer their children.

This year, 39 students used No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to transfer from Parkade, a jump from three transfers the year before. Parkade saw the most students leave out of 116 total transfers from Title I schools in Columbia. Now, as district administrators and parents wonder whether NCLB accurately judges success, they are trying to figure out how best to handle the school choice sanction.

Common terms in No Child Left Behind

A few terms pop up repeatedly when talking about the No Child Left Behind Act. They are:

  • Title I: funding given to schools with 40 percent or more of students from low-income households
  • Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP): the goal percentage of students testing proficient at grade-level work that increases every year
  • Missouri Assessment Program Test (MAP test): a key standardized test used by Missouri to measure how well students are performing
  • End-of-Course Assessment: Columbia public high schools replaced the MAP test with EOC tests starting in the 2008-2009 school year

After falling below the federal benchmark, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), for two consecutive years, a public school is classified as "needs improvement" and becomes subject to a list of sanctions. As sanctions increase, the previous sanctions remain in effect. Sanctions are:

  • School Improvement Level 1 (Failed to make AYP for two consecutive years): school transfer option
  • School Improvement Level 2 (Failed to make AYP for three consecutive years): supplemental education services
  • School Improvement Level 3 (Failed to make AYP for four consecutive years): corrective action, including replacing staff
  • School Improvement Level 4 (Failed to make AYP for five consecutive years): restructuring planning
  • School Improvement Level 5 (Failed to make AYP for six consecutive years): restructuring implemented

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Shelby’s mother, Sarah Chapin, decided to use the option to transfer her child from a Title I school the first year it was offered. Title I schools receive federal dollars because 40 percent of students come from low-income households.

If these schools fall short of the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) test-score goals, they become subject to sanctions. The transfer option, known as school choice, is the first penalty for a school that missed AYP for two consecutive years. In Missouri, NCLB progress is measured by two standardized tests: the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) and, for high schools, End-of-Course Assessments.

Columbia’s Title I elementary schools — Parkade, Benton, Blue Ridge, Derby Ridge, West Boulevard and Field — faced school choice this year, with 13 times the number of transfers as last year. A total of 164 families applied, but 48 changed their minds, said Jack Jensen, assistant superintendent for elementary education.

Some declined because the traveling distance was too far for them. Others went back to their child’s home school, checked their child’s records and saw individual success, then decided not to transfer.

“When I talk to parents, they will say there is a lot of confusion about what the message that No Child Left Behind says regarding their schools,” Jensen said.

Tracking progress

Starting in third grade, NCLB tests students’ proficiency at grade-level work and measures only whether the student passes or fails the standardized tests that year.

“I think it’s a snapshot and, as we know with a snapshot, there can be good snapshots and not so good snapshots,” Jensen said. “To try to judge how well an individual student is doing with a snapshot is probably not the best way to determine if a child is achieving.”

Missouri is one of 15 states to add a growth model to the measurement system. The growth model tracks a child’s progress through each grade, so that their improvement reflects in the grade and school’s scores. The addition of the growth model helped 14 districts and almost 200 schools in Missouri meet AYP, said Becky Odneal, chief accountability officer for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Chapin, though, moved her daughter not just because Parkade fell short of AYP benchmarks; she perceived a lack of parental involvement and discipline problems there at the time that hindered learning.

Under NCLB, the responsibility to create successful schools lies with the school district.

Future sanctions for Columbia’s Title I schools could include the federal government replacing staff, changing curriculum and taking control of the school; all public schools nationwide have until 2014 to reach 100 percent grade-level proficiency.

But the sanctions, such as school transfers, could have unintended consequences, said Sally Beth Lyon, chief academic officer for the district. It could increase the size of classes at schools receiving the transfer students, as has happened this year at Ridgeway and Two Mile Prairie elementary schools.

Jensen said that in the past, he tried to keep class sizes at a “desirable” level suggested by the state. However, for school choice transfers, he is not allowed to deny an NCLB transfer because of class size or any other reason. If the district refuses such a transfer, it would lose all $3.7 million in Title I funding received for 2009.

Two Mile Prairie exceeded the state-suggested “maximum” class size limit this year in kindergarten and hits that limit in other grades. Ridgeway, a magnet school where students must apply to enroll, also hits the maximum in some grades.

The transfers also could lead to more economic segregation between schools, Lyon said.

“By that I mean that if the students whose families choose to transfer are more affluent, that would leave some schools with higher proportions of students in poverty at the ‘transferred from’ schools and higher affluence at the schools to which students transfer,” she said.

Getting to school

An NCLB transfer must be made at the start of the school year, shortly after Missouri’s test scores are released. The timing is rough on schools, parent and administrators.

Chapin encourages other parents to transfer if they want to. “I honestly think if you can make your school better where you’re at, you should definitely go for it,” she said. “I just couldn’t.”

One consequence affects life outside of the classroom. Chapin’s family lives in the Vanderveen subdivision, where most children go to Parkade or have transferred to private schools, Fairview, Grant or other schools that made AYP. She and her husband have built a network of friends, but she wishes her kids could play with classmates in their own neighborhood.

Chapin, who has a younger son at Fairview and an older daughter at Rock Bridge High School, wishes she felt comfortable leaving her children at Parkade. “(Shelby) could be playing with people who live on our street,” Chapin said.

Chapin chooses to drive her three children to school, but transfer students receive bus transportation if they want it. Columbia is required to spend at least 20 percent of its Title I budget on transportation for school choice, supplementary education services and professional development. Of that, the district is using $256,000, well above the minimum of 5 percent that must be spent on transportation for the students who transfer schools.

Both Two Mile Prairie and Midway Heights elementary schools sit outside of the city. Some transferred students now ride the bus for almost an hour to and from school, district transportation director Blake Tekotte said. Columbia added six bus routes this year and one last year because of the transfers.

But if a school accepts transfers one year then falls below AYP the next year, students lose that transportation.

“We had people transfer into Shepard last year that now, because they did not make it, we cannot pay for their transportation,” Jensen said. “So they now have that hard decision of, ‘Do I leave my child at Shepard, do I transfer my child back to their home school or do I maybe apply to a transfer to another school that made it?”

Subgroups hold sway

Amy Watkins, in her second year as principal of Parkade Elementary School, saw the biggest number of students leave their home school for schools that met AYP this year.

“Our teachers have already formed strong bonds with our students and it’s hard to not take that personally,” she said.

But changes are under way, including implementation of a new reading program, “Literacy by Design,” meant to help students with different abilities achieve on the same level. However, to avoid further sanctions, the school must meet next year’s AYPs of 67.4 percent of students at grade-level proficiency in communication arts and 63.3 percent in mathematics.

The NCLB act drew attention to achievement gaps among students through its measurement of subgroups. Each school is divided into subgroups that classify students into categories of racial and ethnic identity, free or reduced lunch, students with individual educations plans and students with limited English proficiency.

NCLB counts a subgroup if the school has at least 30 students who fit the category. If one subgroup within a school misses the AYP goal, the whole school misses the goal. In Columbia, two subgroups consistently meet the yearly goal: white and Asian.

Parkade has five subgroups. Paxton Keeley Elementary School, which also fell short of AYP, has six subgroups, the most of any Columbia elementary school. Fairview has four, with no racial or ethnic minority subgroups and 38.8 percent students with free or reduced lunch.

“It’s very different for schools like us that have five subgroups,” Watkins said. “Many students fall in more than one subgroup, so if a student performs poorly, it affects the outcome of many subgroups.”

Apples and oranges?

According to the Nation’s Report Card, published by the U.S. Department of Education, Hispanic and black students score higher now on standardized tests than when the act began seven years ago. However, the data is inconclusive because the scores were rising before the act became law.

Studies on how NCLB affects student improvement are controversial, Becky Odneal, from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said.

Although Watkins likes that NCLB aims at the heart of individual student growth, she said the single standard for all schools, regardless of subgroups, causes Parkade to struggle.

Otto Fajen is a parent of three Ridgeway students and legislative director for the Missouri affiliate of the National Educators Association. The NEA, which represents about 3.2 million teachers and other school staff, employs 10 lobbyists working to change the act when it comes up for reauthorization this year. Fajen said creating one achievement goal for every student, grade and school to meet is unrealistic.

Besides the diversity of students between schools, the act ignores outside factors, such as home life, puberty and varying growth rates between students.

“If it’s high jumping, no matter where you set the bar, you’re going to have some kids who can’t jump because of physical disability,” Fajen said.

This year, Columbia high school students performed above the national average on the ACT, SAT and Advanced Placement tests. Because those tests helped determine college admission or credit, students feel motivated to do better on them than the MAP test, Jensen said. The MAP can help identify areas of success for the district, but “it’s just not a high-stakes test for students.”

“The MAP test is three days in the life of a student,” Watkins said, adding that scores only reflect how the students perform on those days.

Those reasons add to Fajen’s worry that teachers feel pressure to teach only for the test, he said.

“With three kids at Ridgeway, we don’t need some mandate from the federal government about some test designed by the state, to have good things go on in Ridgeway Elementary School,” he said. “The school district, the parents, the kids and the staff really know best what’s going and what needs to happen.”

This year, critics get the chance to change the act. Congress will review and decide whether to reauthorize No Child Left Behind. In the meantime, Lyon said Columbia is always monitoring its performance and making changes.

Amy Wilkins, vice president of Education Trust, an advocacy group that conducts research and provides assistance on fixing achievement gaps, said NCLB excels at shining a light on such gaps. However, she thinks the act needs to be changed to fix the problem, instead of just highlighting it.

“It’s not about time, but about providing support,” Wilkins said.

Lyon wants to see more of supportive resources, such as pre-kindergarten classrooms, rather than punishments. The social problems of poverty affect children’s readiness to learn, she said.

Between 80 and 100 students are waiting to get into these classrooms, Lyon said. The district wants to use Title I funding to expand capacity of those classrooms and provide more professional development for teachers.

Field Elementary faces complete restructuring next year as it beomes Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary School, though it retains its past MAP record. West Boulevard’s scores keep rising every year but still not enough to meet AYP.

Jensen said NCLB’s goal of 100 percent of students meeting AYP by 2014 is unrealistic — and probably impossible. Wilkins said students can achieve that goal if the system can be changed to allow them to do so.

Meanwhile, that’s no excuse for letting disadvantaged students be overlooked, she said. “I’m in no way saying we should increase tolerance for the intolerable.”


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