A shortening list of failing schools

States gauge progress of Bush's education reforms - and debate what it really shows.

In New Jersey and South Carolina, big drops in the number of failing schools are being celebrated as evidence of improved educational systems.

In both Boston and Chicago, the entire school district has been placed on a "need of improvement" list - setting up a clash with the federal government over special tutoring.

Florida and California are somewhere in between: They've seen modest jumps in test scores, but view the improvements as just the calm before the storm.

As the latest report cards on schools and districts trickle out, they're giving the public a snapshot not only of the nation's education system but also of the successes and failures of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), President Bush's landmark 2001 education law. So far this year, the results have been better than many critics expected: Student achievement is up, and the lists of schools on state watch lists because of poor academic performance are getting shorter in nearly every state.

None of this means the nation's public schools have suddenly become Harvards without the ivy. Some analysts, in fact, warn that the trend may be deceptive: The shorter watch lists, for instance, may have more to do with bureaucratic changes than academic gains. And next year, the target achievement levels students need to reach under NCLB will jump in many states.

But others see the gains as an important sign that educators and administrators are focusing their attention where they need to. At the least, defenders of No Child Left Behind say, the dire predictions of critics about large numbers of failing schools as a result of the law have not come true.

More important, they see NCLB as responsible for an important culture shift in the nation's public schools, toward a reliance on hard numbers that offer a precise yardstick of how schools are doing.

"I know lots of folks out there are impatient with all the testing, but it is the barometer by which you can help students if you use it correctly," says Kathy Christie, a researcher at the Education Commission of the States in Denver, Colo.

About 22 percent of schools nationwide failed to make their federally mandated performance targets this year and thus were put on a watch list, down from about 35 percent last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. An analysis by the National Education Association shows that of the 41 states that have reported results so far, 32 are doing better than last year.

Some of the improvement had to do with greater familiarity with the law - schools making sure everyone gets tested, for instance. The Department of Education also tweaked some rules to grant more flexibility and allowed 35 states to change their accountability plans, in most cases taking more schools off the list. And the NEA points out that while the number of schools not meeting their goals for one year dropped, the number of schools not meeting those goals for two or more years - when sanctions start to kick in - went up in 40 of 47 states.

The changed rules are almost certainly the reason Delaware, for instance, dropped from a 56 percent failure rate to 26 percent, or why Pennsylvania's dropped from 37 percent to 19 percent. A Philadelphia Inquirer study found that without the rules changes, the number of schools not meeting their targets would actually have increased slightly.

But most people acknowledge that achievement did improve. Even more notable, an analysis by the Education Trust, a nonpartisan group in Washington, showed that achievement gaps between different income and racial groups are starting to narrow.

"There is now a broad consensus that closing achievement gaps is the top priority for public education," says Ross Wiener, the group's policy director.

There's still plenty of disgruntlement with the law, however, which requires schools to analyze student achievement each year among several different subgroups, such as race, income, and special education. It penalizes schools in which even one subgroup fails to meet a targeted proficiency level more than two years in a row. Those targets keep rising, toward the ultimate goal of having all students proficient by the year 2014. Many educators complain the law is unfair and too rigid, ignoring the realities of education in different settings.

"No Child Left Behind doesn't take into account the time it takes for children to learn the English language," says Foch Pensis, superintendent of the Coachella Valley United School District in Palm Springs, Calif., which is considering suing the government over the law's "English language learner" (ELL) requirements.

In Mr. Pensis's district, 80 percent of the students fall in the ELL category, meaning they have to demonstrate a certain proficiency with English; 90 percent are Hispanic. A quarter of his students don't speak English at all. "Once they learn English, they're doing very well," he says. "But that 25 percent pulls you down mathematically, so it's impossible to reach that goal."

Just three of the 19 schools in Pensis's district met their yearly progress goals this year. Now, he's working with legislators to see if they can get a regulatory change from the federal government that preclude the need for a lawsuit.

Boston, Chicago, and several other urban school districts were caught off-guard by another component of NCLB. For the first time this year, the law placed entire districts, not just schools, on the watch list. Besides, the federal government said any district that made the watch list had to hire private tutors, not rely on their own, to improve performance.

Chicago has said the prohibition means far fewer children will get help. The superintendent vows to keep supplying their own tutors. Boston - which was placed on the watch list because it missed its attendance goal by 0.2 percent - is also considering defying Washington.

Moreover, Jack Jennings, director of the Center for Education Policy, notes that a few school districts have landed on the watch list - even though they don't have a single failing school.

California has been particularly critical of NCLB. The state has its own accountability system, a model that tracks student achievement over time instead of school performance. California, along with 16 other states, has asked to use this system in place of NCLB. More than 300 schools showing significant improvement under its model have been labeled failing under NCLB, according to State Superintendent Jack O'Connell. "What concerns me is that those schools are going to have to change programs they know are working," he says.

The state has estimated that 67 percent of its schools would fail to meet federally mandated targets next year. "What kind of accountability system would you have when over half the schools are" failing? asks Mr. O'Connel. Like nearly all NCLB critics, he insists his complaints aren't with tough standards or the goals of the law - just the implementation. With our model, he says, "we always give schools a shot at success."

Not everyone agrees. The Bush administration has labeled much NCLB criticism as "the soft bigotry of low expectations." California's system may sound better, but because it demands the same level of academic improvement for all subgroups, rather than accelerated improvement for poorer achievers, "it institutionalizes achievement gaps and allows them to grow wider," says the Education Trust's Mr. Wiener.

For its part, the Department of Education acknowledges that changes may still need to be made to the law, but questions why anyone would anticipate failure in advance.

"I know there are potentials out there for large numbers [of schools on the watch list], and perhaps it will happen. But I've been more than impressed with what I've seen," says Eugene Hickok, undersecretary of Education. "I would not want to underestimate the ability of men and women to really make things happen."

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