No Child Left Behind

(from Maine Townsman, January 2004)
By Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer

       A central premise of the federal No Child Left Behind Act law might be invalid in a rural state like Maine.

       The premise of President Bush’s education reform is this: poor schools will improve if parents are given a clear picture of performance and the option of transferring children to a school of their choice. In Maine transfer options are quite limited by distance. Early reports suggest Maine parents are not voting with their feet when their school gets branded with the federal scarlet letter of “in need of improvement.”

       Take SAD 34 in the Belfast area, for example. For the past two years, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has empowered parents to pull students out of Kermit Nickerson Elementary School, where fourth-grade reading scores have been low for three years running. No parent has done so, says SAD 34 Superintendent Bob Young. That may partly be due to the inconvenience of sending a child to a more distant school, but Young thinks people understand the reasons behind the low scores and don’t blame them on the school. Kermit Nickerson is a small school of 118 students with a high percentage of special education students, he said.

       “People feel, really, over the years, we’ve been doing a great job,” said Superintendent Young. Young said he’s heard barely a peep from parents about NCLB.

       “I’ve gotten pretty much no feedback, or if I do it’s (been) who are the feds to tell us what to do?” he said. “They don’t know why the feds are sticking their nose in when they’re paying so little of the bill.”

       The situation in Belfast may not be unique. In nine other communities — Trenton, Steuben, St. Albans, Lawrence, Searsport, Eastport, Jonesport-Beals, Millinocket, and Milo  — parents have been similarly empowered by NCLB and are staying put or at least requesting so few transfers they’ve escaped notice by Maine’s Department of Education. 

       Under NCLB, schools that fail to show “adequate yearly progress” in a single year are given state assistance right away. If progress is still insufficient after the second year even with the extra help, then parental choice is brought into the equation. Schools are required to offer students tutoring or a transfer to a school with better scores, with the transportation costs picked up by the school.

       Patrick Phillips is a deputy commissioner of education for Maine and heavily involved in Maine’s compliance with NCLB. He attaches no significance to the early experience with NCLB because so few schools are involved, but he said a trend may become clearer as the latest batch of 120 schools gets processed by the NCLB machinery.

       “I have a feeling, given what I know about Maine, that there’s an awfully strong sense of commitment to local schools. I don’t think we’ll see a widespread flight. It just doesn’t square with my experience,” he said.  


       If parents stay put, it will certainly solidify the growing opposition to NCLB. Opposition blossomed in late October when 120 schools - many of them well respected in their communities - got the federal scarlet letter posted on the schoolhouse door for the first time.

       U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe fired off a letter to Education Secretary Rod Paige asking him to address concerns raised by Maine educators. U.S. Senator Susan Collins said she would appoint a task force of Maine educators to recommend changes. In addition, she is co-sponsoring legislation requiring the General Accounting Office to study the impact of NCLB on rural schools, particularly the financial burdens and implications for hiring and retaining teachers.  U.S. Representatives Tom Allen and Mike Michaud are co-sponsoring legislation requiring an annual report on the fed’s progress in meeting its obligations.

       The word out of Washington is that there won’t be any significant changes until after the 2004 elections. But that hasn’t quelled the defiance.

        Texas, long on the forefront of testing mania, has reversed course and created a test easy to pass, in a deliberate repudiation of the spirit of NCLB. A handful of states, including New Hampshire, are considering rejecting the federal money and not participating in the NCLB.

       That’s the same approach being taken by Maine Sen. Michael Brennan. He said he’s dismayed that Maine’s Congressional delegation hasn’t already sought repeal or substantial changes.  “That’s too bad,” he said. “It will take state initiatives to counter all the negative implications.”

       In summary, there are three major complaints about NCLB. First, its reliance on standardized testing undermines Maine’s more nuanced approach to raising achievement levels. Second, it will shift huge new responsibilities onto the state and local governments without the money to carry them out. Third, it creates a nighmarishly complex system with impossible goals. More on each later.

       NCLB is an 1,100-page law and each new disclosure about implementation brings a new round of head-scratching. Superintendents attending a Maine School Management Association meeting in Augusta last month were shocked to learn about the new certification requirements of middle school teachers. Currently, a blanket certification applies in grades K-12, making teachers interchangeable in subject areas and grade level. Under the NCLB requirement that all teachers in core subject areas be “highly qualified,” middle school teachers must be certified in their subject, just as high school teachers currently are. It is common for middle teachers in Maine to teach two subjects — English and social studies or math and science — which means they’ll need two more certifications, the coursework for each of which may take a year to complete.  “You could see every superintendent in the room’s jaw hit the table,” said Jim Morse, superintendent in SAD 47 in the Oakland area. “This law is so rich in that level of detail.”

       The man who’s taking most of the heat from Maine is Michael Sentance, a former Massachusetts education official now serving as regional representative for the U.S. Department of Education and overseeing New England’s state compliance with NCLB. At a Dec. 4 hearing before the Maine Legislature’s Education Committee, he disputed many of the detailed criticisms of NCLB and challenged critics to embrace the new law’s spirit. The knock on Maine, he says, is Maine’s performance on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in comparison to states that have adopted high-stakes testing.

       “I think people need to acknowledge the issues that NCLB raised,” Sentance said in a telephone interview. He alleges “there’s been very little progress” in improving Maine students’ scores on NAEP tests. “If you go to Maine’s website, Maine touts its story. But those NAEP scores are aggregate scores. ... And if you look at what’s happening, there’s been no increase in scores in the past decade. No closing of the gap. If you look at other states, they are surpassing Maine and closing the gap and they have a much more diverse population. The idea that’s what has to be, just isn’t true. You can close the gaps.”               

       NAEP is the closest thing to a national test, but only a select number of students take it every year and so the results are extrapolated to represent the entire state.

       For a federal education official to use Maine’s NAEP scores against it is a hard pill for some to swallow. Not only are Maine’s scores above average or near the top, but the feds have consistently claimed NAEP scores won’t be used to measure progress and they have claimed states are free to come up with their own testing.

       “He (Sentance) is not plain wrong, but he’s talking broadly, not looking at the context,” said John Kennedy, the NAEP coordinator for Maine. He said there is a “disjunction” between Sentance using NAEP scores against Maine and claims that states are free to come up with their own testing systems. “This was a little politicking (by Sentance),” says Kennedy who conceded that achievement scores vary slightly by gender, ethnic background and socio-economic standing, but says they are less than Sentance portrays. “Yes, we have gaps, but they’re small gaps and we’re closing them.”

       In Garrison Keeler’s fictional town of Lake Woebegone “all the children are above average.” That’s more or less the goal written into NCLB.

       Although each state must use the same federal formula for calculating which schools are making adequate yearly progress toward student proficiency levels, their starting points may be very different and each state is free to define “proficient”. In South Carolina this year, only 17.4 percent of elementary and middle school students had to score at the proficient level and above on a standardized English test; in Delaware, it was 57 percent, and in Colorado, about 70 percent. Maine has many starting points depending on the grade level. In math it is anywhere from 11 to 13 percent and in reading it is anywhere from 34 to 44 percent.

       But as the years roll by, an increasing percentage of students must demonstrate proficiency until 2013-2014 when all students are expected to meet the grade.  That includes every subgroup, including special education. Maine has deliberately backloaded its compliance timetable with the biggest hikes in later years to give schools time at the beginning to “get cranked up,” according to Jacqueline Soychack, a state education official overseeing NCLB compliance. But she doubts the goals will be reached. “My prediction is we’ll see steady improvement, but getting to 100 percent proficiency will be quite a stretch,” said Soychack. As Morse, the SAD 47 superintendent, quips “they left out the word ‘Lake Woebegone’.”

       Test taking goes to new heights under NCLB.

       For the first time, schools are being judged not just for what they do for the bulk of the student body, but what they do for particular groups. In the past, schools were rated on school-wide averages and could blend poor scores by disadvantaged kids with high scores by the privileged kids. Under what is termed disaggregation, a central concept of NCLB, kids are divided into subgroups. In Maine, the subgroups are: low income, minority, students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency.  Multiply the subgroups by two since all subgroups have to measure up in both reading and math, with science waiting in the wings. Each subgroup must demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) for the school to avoid sanctions. Furthermore, if more than five percent of the kids in each subgroup are absent when the test is given — even for good reasons such as sickness or studying abroad — the school also lands on the list. It gets more elaborate.  Maine currently tests kids three times between kindergarden and high school graduation, the feds require testing seven times.

       All this complexity is supposed to create transparency, or no place to hide.

       But it can also create perverse outcomes. Remember, if a school fails to meet its AYP for two years, then the school has to offer the opportunity to go to another school with better scores, paying for transportation costs. Students with the lowest scores get the first choice. As a result, a receiving school’s AYP is jeopardized by the incoming students, while the sending school’s AYP improves just because they leave. For some, the vision of student migrations offer a potential for ugly confrontations.

       “I haven’t figured out all the scenarios, but potentially it could be true,” said Mike Brennan, the state senator.

       Maine’s beef with all the testing is that it undos the nuanced system that the state has labored since 1996 to create. Maine consciously rejected a single standardized test as the measure of competence when it established the Learning Results set of high school graduation requirements. Maine, for example, allows portfolios to count as much as a standardized test score.

       “I sat for hours, days, weeks working through all these issues,” said Brennan. “We consciously decided against labeling schools ‘failing’ and against sanctions. ... We are going in the right direction. You couldn’t find a better example of the federal government interfering with a state initiative and modifying it from something that is positive and going forward.”

       Maine unsuccessfully sought a waiver to opt out of NCLB last spring. Sentance actually praised Maine’s Learning Results on Dec. 4 when he appeared before the Education Committee and disputed claims that it is undermined by NCLB.

       “I’ve heard that criticism and I don’t think it’s true. Whatever assessment is used, it has to be technically valid,” he said. In other words: if you use portfolios or another subjective measure it must be uniformly judged “so it’s the same in Bangor, Portland or Rhode Island or anyplace else.”

       In other public statements, Sentance has taken a much harder line against “local assessments.”  In any case, the feds have provided no guidance for how to mesh a local assessment system with NCLB, said Brennan.

       “They haven’t shown us how to do that, haven’t shown us the way,” he said. “Nebraska has been able to push the envelope the furthest... But Nebraska has a fairly strong standardized testing process.”

       Another beef is the cost. Critics say NCLB implementation bears a resemblance to the federal special education law passed in 1975, whereby the federal government mandated new responsibilities and pledged to provide 40 percent of the cost of special education, a pledge that the feds have never even met halfway in nearly three decades.

       “I see NCLB going the same route,” said Brennan.

       Sentance says Maine has plenty of money for implementation. He said federal aid for teacher training in Maine has increased from $9 million to $14 million in three years. Test development aide has increased similarly to $4 million. Overall, Maine receives $90 million a year in federal education aid.

       No one really knows because NCLB costs won’t be known until later years.

       Back in Belfast, Superintendent Young thinks his school district could survive without federal money. He said he welcomes the technical help and money for teacher training that comes with being on the list, though it hasn’t resulted in a changed strategy for improving scores. Overall, he said he pays less attention to NCLB than to the state’s own graduation requirements that kick in for children in ninth grade this year.

       “I think we’re more focused on (state graduation requirements) than getting on George Bush’s failure list,” said Young. “There are a thousand ways to get on that list and not much reward for staying off it.”