Educators debate rules of assessment

Some school officials say `adequate yearly progress' results are misleading

August 23, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Dunbar High School in Baltimore City made "adequate yearly progress" in the new Maryland School Assessment.

Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County got a terse computer message, black on yellow, as scores from the test were released yesterday: "Not met."

Did a school hardly known for academic prowess suddenly outscore one of the nation's premier schools, one which wins a slew of academic awards yearly? No, according to Montgomery County officials. Blair has 834 Hispanic students, many with learning disabilities and limited English skills. And Dunbar has only a handful of students in those categories. Their scores aren't even counted because they are statistically insignificant.

The No Child Left Behind Act, which sets the rules for the new Maryland test, leaves the states no choice. Students in eight subgroups, including those with disabilities, those with limited English and those eligible for free lunches, all must make "adequate yearly progress" or the school gets Blair's grade.

Across the nation, educators are debating the tough rules of AYP, an acronym that's a big part of school conversations these days. Some say AYP is long overdue. By unmasking the achievement disparities among minorities, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said yesterday, the law has forced schools to concentrate on closing the gap.

Four out of five of Maryland's eighth-graders failed to meet the proficiency target in special education this year, a result, said Grasmick, that proves "we certainly have the right kids in special education. These are kids with special needs. The fact of the matter is if you're reading at the second-grade level in grade five, you need an individual education program."

Others are more vehement. Barbara Dezmon, a Baltimore County official who heads a statewide initiative on minority achievement, called the special education scores "abominable. They defy statistical reason, even human reason. This is a group that until now has never had a strong voice. Maybe now it will."

Others believe there should be allowances in the two categories. After all, they argue, a student with limited English skills - and half of Maryland's kids in that category are enrolled in Montgomery County - is by definition a poor reader. And the inclusion in regular education of students with disabilities is causing otherwise high-achieving schools across the country to fail to make adequate yearly progress.

The tough AYP standard has embarrassed some schools. Officials at a high school in Delaware found themselves on the failing list not long after Newsweek named the school one of the best in the nation. "When they found out that only 12 percent of Hispanics were making the grade, they were outraged. Having been in Newsweek, they saw this as on-its-face evidence that the system is flawed," said Kevin Carey, a senior policy analyst at Education Trust, a Washington-based organization that seeks to raise standards in American schools and colleges.

Grasmick suggested that the federal government "think about a progress standard that relates to the disability. We could do that without lowering overall standards."

What happens to schools that aren't making AYP? Title I schools serving poor students are already providing extra services and offering parents the choice of transferring their children to a better public school.

A school that fails to make progress in four consecutive years must take major corrective action, such as replacing staff, adopting new curriculum or extending the school year. And after five years, failing schools must be "restructured," which could involve a state takeover.

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