Original URL: http://www.gazette.net/200335/montgomerycty/education/174639-1.html

School districts learn new standards are no joke
Aug. 27, 2003

by Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer

School officials in Washington County found out last week that the federal education law really does live up to its name: No Child Left Behind.

The performance of a single special education student in that county kept a school from meeting state benchmarks on the new Maryland School Assessments.

But that will be a motivating factor in the future, said Washington County Superintendent Elizabeth M. Morgan.

"We've really got to roll up our sleeves and do some work with our disabled students," she said.

School systems around the state had similar experiences last week as the state Department of Education updated its list of schools needing improvement -- 144 schools that did not meet state standards for two consecutive years on the now-defunct MSPAP tests. No new schools will be added to the list until after the 2003-2004 school year.

At a minimum, schools on the list must allow students to transfer to higher-scoring schools or provide extra tutoring for students, paid for with the federal Title I funds given to the schools.

If schools stay on the watch list for more than two years they may be taken over by the state or reconstituted, which means a wholesale change of staff and leadership.

To get off the list, a certain percentage of students at those schools must score as proficient on the new Maryland School Assessments in reading and mathematics for two consecutive years. Under federal law, the number of proficient students must increase gradually to 100 percent by 2014. (The state's baseline standard of proficiency was  released Friday, as were the scores for schools and school systems. See related story.)

Thirteen schools in Maryland did improve for two straight years and this year earned their way off the school improvement list. Thirty schools met all the standards and will be removed if they repeat that feat in the spring.

But 131 schools remain on the list, and some of them are there because relatively small groups of students did not meet the state standards. Schools must not only meet the state benchmark for their whole student body, but each of eight subgroups also must meet a minimum standard: American Indian, African American, Hispanic, Asian and white students, and groups of children in special education and ESOL, as well as low-income students. And each of those subgroups can have as few as five students.

Montgomery County schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast compared that challenge to the carnival game of hitting balloons with darts.

Montgomery County, the state's largest school system with about 141,000 students, has 10 schools on the improvement list. Three of those schools met the standards in all categories and will be taken off the improvement list if they meet the standards next year.

But six other schools missed the mark in only one category -- either for students who speak little English or students in special education. Only one of the 10 did not meet standards in more than one area.

Wheaton Woods Elementary School would have come off the list this year, but it missed the standard for ESOL students taking the reading test. That school will have to meet state standards for another two consecutive years.

Harmony Hills Elementary School in Wheaton missed the proficiency mark only among 18 special education students who took the reading test.

Situations like that can be demoralizing for teachers and administrators, Weast said. "I'm not sure the all-or-nothing approach is the most motivating technique."

But the effects of the law can be more magnified in rural areas of the state such as Kent County, which enrolled fewer than 1,000 elementary students in its four elementary schools in 2002.

Kent County does not have any schools on the state's watch list, but Superintendent Bonnie C. Ward is worried about public reaction to the law.

Kent County Public Schools had just six American Indians enrolled at the end of the 2002 school year, along with 12 Asian Americans and 72 Hispanic students.

"It's a concern when I have to publish data from my district based on numbers as small as five or six," Ward said. "There's a public perception problem using statistics based on those numbers."

And there are other difficulties for rural districts, Ward explained. If parents elect to transfer their children, there are fewer choices in rural districts and greater distances and costs in busing them to another school, she said.

Frederick County schools Superintendent Jack D. Dale said there will be some temporary downsides to the law, but over the long run it will force school systems to focus more of the money on the children who are not meeting the standards.

"The law doesn't say that, but it's a consequence," he said.

Frederick has two schools that will stay on the improvement list for at least another two years.

This year's scores are a baseline, but everyone needs to be careful about generalizing after only one year of a new test, said St. Mary's County Superintendent Patricia Richardson.

St. Mary's has one school that was taken off the improvement list this year. Two more of the county's schools will stay on the list, although one met all the standards and can be taken off next year if it continues to meet the benchmarks.

"The way we're approaching it here is: 'Everybody needs to improve,'" Richardson said. "If you look at it that way, it takes some of the pain away from the schools that have been identified."