Schools facing fed crackdown
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 25, 2005


Federal officials have asked Arizona to get tougher on how it measures schools, which could lead to a 150 more schools failing to meet critical standards.

The U.S. Department of Education wants Arizona to include AIMS test scores from students just learning English when calculating which schools meet federal standards and which fail, according to a report released this month.

If the U.S. Department of Education gets its way, the number of schools failing to meet federal standards could jump by about 150 in 2006. In addition, the 303 schools already failing federal standards in 2004 could find it harder to work their way to passing.

The consequences of not passing are significant. Schools that don't pass four years in a row face government intervention, including replacing principals and teachers.

State officials are hoping to convince federal officials to allow Arizona to continue to leave out the students just learning English.

If the state doesn't bend to the will of the U.S. Department of Education, it could end up facing a hefty fine. For example, Texas is facing an $880,000 federal fine for exempting the scores of too many special-education students when determining which schools failed or passed federal standards.

State schools chief Tom Horne scheduled a conference call this week asking federal education officials to stand by an agreement that allowed the state to continue exempting most students who are just learning English.

Horne negotiated the verbal agreement with the Bush administration's top education officials in May 2003 as a last-minute compromise when the president was eager to announce that all 50 states had signed onto the reforms outlined in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

"It was absolutely at the heart of our agreement to enter into No Child Left Behind," Horne said. "We were at an impasse up to that point."

The federal standard is called Adequate Yearly Progress. To pass it, an increasing number of students must pass the AIMS reading and math tests each year at each grade level and within smaller groups, such as kids learning English, kids belonging to racial and ethnic minorities, and student living in poverty.

Federal officials allow states to test students in their home language during their the first three years of learning English. But an Arizona law, passed by voters in 2000, requires students to take Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, all tests, in English only.

The feds agreed to allow all Arizona schools to leave out the scores of the kids in their first three years of learning English when determining if a school makes Adequate Yearly Progress.

The feds negotiated plenty of twists and waivers to coax other states on board with the new law, but Arizona is the only state granted such a compromise. Horne said that is why federal negotiators didn't want it in writing: "They didn't want other states copying it." Both the law and "honorable people" recognize the validity of verbal agreements, Horne said. Lower level U.S. Department of Education compliance monitors, who reviewed the Arizona Department of Education in April, started the flap when they issued their monitoring report earlier this month, demanding the changes. Horne said he is now talking with people in the top levels.

"I know them and they are honorable people," Horne said. "I am hopeful they will respect the agreement that was made."

Darla Marburger, a senior policy official at the U.S. Department of Education, was not willing to discuss what she called "the Arizona issue" in detail. Most states test all students in English, Marburger said, and must include those scores when determining which schools pass or fail federal standards. It's all part of requiring all students get a quality education, Marburger said: "The point is every school has challenges educating its student bodies."

It appears, however, states are growing weary of attempting to meet those challenges when it comes to trying to track progress of their English-language learners.

U.S. Department of Education spokesman Chad Colby said Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has just formed a new "working group" to answer that question, and its members have met once.

Arizona officials will release the 2005 list of districts and schools that failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress on Sept. 1. Any change demanded by the feds is not expected to be in place for the 2005 results.

Most Arizona school officials are rooting for Horne to win this round with the feds.

If he loses, Phoenix's Washington Elementary testing director Janet Sullivan said it would be "devastating" for the 32-school district: It would be nearly impossible for the four schools already failing the federal standards to meet it and the number district schools failing would double or triple. Sullivan said it makes no sense to hold a group of students just learning English to the same academic standards as students who have spoken English all their lives.

"Common sense tells you that this group of learners is not going to perform at the same level as native speaking students," Sullivan said.