July 13, 2008

Loopholes Give Schools a Pass Even When Scores Fall Short

By Lauren Roth, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

Jul. 13--Thousands of our schoolchildren are being left behind. Only you wouldn't know it by looking at the test results that will be released next month.

Last year, all but 31 of the 214 public schools in South Hampton Roads passed federally mandated standards, making what is called "adequate yearly progress." But in every school that passed AYP, as it's often called, at least one group of scores -- such as those belonging to students who are Hispanic, disabled or learning English -- was disregarded.

A set of rules -- some call them loopholes -- enables schools to ignore test results for large groups of struggling students or to use bonus points to meet pass rates.

Cheryl Poe of Virginia Beach, an advocate for children with disabilities, called it "crazy" and "backwards" that some children aren't being counted.

"Anyone should be concerned when they're coming up with loopholes to cover up the fact that groups of children aren't performing the way they should perform. These are the kids who need it the most."

If their disabled students had been counted, about 70 percent of South Hampton Roads schools actually would have failed last year in math, reading or both.

According to the federal No Child Left Behind act, all groups must pass for a school to meet AYP. Failing schools bear the stigma for an entire year and can be forced to provide tutoring or to allow students to switch schools.

The federal law was written to hold schools accountable for the success of all of their students, including minorities and other groups. That's why they are counted separately, said Michael J. Petrilli, who helped implement No Child Left Behind as a senior official in the U.S. Department of Education.

"That doesn't necessarily mean they are writing them off," he said. "But important conversations are not happening." All students are still considered in their overall school score and division averages.

The scores of special education students on Standards of Learning tests are not counted at the majority of schools in the region and the state, according to data provided by the state Department of Education. And when they are included, Virginia gives bonus points that boost the pass rate.

A school also can pass if its scores are high enough if averaged over three years or if the school reduces its failure rate by at least 10 percent.

"A lot of these, rightfully so, are viewed by the public as ways of getting out of strict accountability rules," said Pete Goldschmidt of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA. Virginia is far from alone. Every state uses some exceptions, he said.

Most loopholes are not limited to special education. They can apply to any measured group, specifically black, white, Hispanic, low-income and disabled students, plus those learning English. In Virginia, a group can be as large as 49 students and still be excluded.

In suburban school systems with little diversity, several such groups can fall under the 50-child threshold and therefore be excluded, said Petrilli, a vice president at the Thomas J. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank in Washington.

"They are A-OK even if a large percentage of their students are performing abysmally," he said.

The results are best at giving parents and the public "some sense of how schools are doing, on average," Petrilli said. "There's a lot of nuance that can get missed."

Heather Malaby, director of the Tidewater District PTA, has researched the methods for reporting test results and believes too much detail can be overwhelming to parents. The state also measures schools through a separate accreditation system.

"I think it's really difficult to understand," she said of the way schools are measured. "Does a parent need to know that? I don't know. You have to be able to have a little faith that the school is doing right."

Typically, the state doesn't report how a school made its progress goal, only that it did. To get a sense of how the process works, The Virginian-Pilot analyzed passing methods in special education, considered a particularly challenging area.

At Trantwood Elementary in Virginia Beach, a school with more PTA members than students, near-perfect scores on parent satisfaction surveys and passing rates above 90 percent on math tests, special education students haven't done as well.

In 2007, 34 special education students were tested in grades three to five. About 63 percent passed in reading and about 55 percent passed in math. According to standards set by the state, they were required to pass at rates of 73 percent in reading and 71 percent in math. Trantwood, like more than half of the schools in the region, met its yearly progress goal because it tested fewer than 50 special education students, the minimum number in Virginia. Some passing schools had as few as a third of their special education students reaching proficient levels.

Trantwood Principal Patricia Slaughter said the scores might have registered lower because Trantwood rarely gives special education students alternative tests, which measure skills differently.

"Special education is a concern across the city because it's difficult," Slaughter said. "There is a reason children are in special education classes."

In Virginia, 79 percent of the public schools that made AYP in 2007 had too few special education students to matter.

States can set their minimum group sizes, and in many states, Trantwood would have had enough special education students for its scores to count. Nationally, groups of 31 regular education students and 36 special education students are the average, according to data compiled by the Council of Chief State School Officers. Maryland counts any group of five students or more.

When Virginia adopted 50 as its threshold in 2003, it was described as large enough to minimize wild swings and "small enough so that large numbers of students and even schools are not excluded from the accountability system," according to state Board of Education documents.

State spokesman Charles Pyle said the board didn't want too many high-performing schools labeled as failing.

Ironically, the 50-student limit meant that there weren't enough special education students to matter at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton and the Virginia School for the Deaf, Blind, and Multi-disabled in Hampton.

Under one nationwide rule, it doesn't matter how many students actually passed AYP. "Safe harbor" considers whether a school reduced its failure rate.

Churchland Middle School in Portsmouth made "safe harbor" in reading because 48 percent of its special education students passed, up from 27 percent the year before.

They used a different rule for math, where 61 percent were proficient or better.

Virginia is one of 22 states that has federal permission to add percentage points to special education pass rates under what is called "proxy percent." The rule is a temporary fix until states come up with a separate test for some of their lower-functioning special education students.

The state will try out a new eighth-grade exam in some schools in 2009, with a wider rollout beginning as soon as 2010, said Shelley Loving-Ryder, assistant state superintendent for student assessment and school improvement.

It might be a good thing if the rules help more schools pass, said Dianne Florence of Virginia Beach, immediate past president of the Virginia PTA. "When a school doesn't make it, I hear from the parents -- how upset they are. They love the school."

The bar is higher this year. For the 2008 test results to be released in August, 75 percent will need to pass in math, 77 percent in reading.

Under No Child Left Behind, states are required to reach 100 percent proficiency in 2014.

"Once you get to 100 percent, none of these will really matter much," said UCLA's Goldschmidt. For example, low math scores the past two years will mean three-year averages won't help much in 2008.

"You have to make all students proficient," he said.

Lauren Roth, (757) 222-5133, [email protected]


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