My Convertible Life

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

School Labels

This week I sent my son off to first grade at a Failing School. And I'm not alone -- of the 163 schools in my district, 141 of them are Failing Schools.

At least, that's the designation according to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Of course, I've actually been in my son's school, met his teachers, talked with his principal, seen what the kids are up to. I know that it's not a Failing School.

His school is the place where he learned to read, add and subtract last year. It's the place where he made new friends and played with old ones. It's the place where  teachers and administrators worked hard to teach all students and help them succeed. It's the place where parents and grandparents volunteered their time and money to make a difference. It's the place where Junius was excited to come back and start first grade.

But because his school missed the mark with six subgroups of students out of the 23 they're required to report, his lovely school is labeled a Failing School. And because it's the second year in a row that the school has been labeled in this way (last year they met 22 of 23 goals), they are required to offer families the option of transferring to another (specified) school in the district.

And this brings me to my concern about No Child Left Behind. I realize I'm not the first (or last) person to write any of this, but it feels really personal now that it's my school. While I don't dismiss the value of assessing student progress and holding schools accountable (because, honestly, is anyone arguing that we SHOULD be leaving some children behind?), I think it is dangerous to use this all-or-nothing approach.

For those of you not familiar with AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) and NCLB, here's a quick primer of how it works in elementary schools:
  • Every student in grades 3-5 takes two end-of-year standardized tests, one in reading and one in math.
  • The school is responsible for reporting test scores for each of the following groups that has at least 40 students in it across the tested grades: white, black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, multiracial, economically disadvantaged (measured as students who receive free and reduced-price lunch), limited English proficient (meaning English isn't their first language) and students with disabilities (also known as special ed). 
  • Using these measures, most schools have several subgroups (plus their scores for the school as a whole), but not all 10.
  • Counting each subgroup twice (once for reading and once for math) plus the school as a whole and a few of other measures under consideration, the elementary schools in my district have as few as seven and as many as 33 subgroups. The more diverse a school is, the more categories it's responsible for meeting (and thus, the more challenging it is to make the goal).
  • If just one student group in one subject (math or reading) at a school does not meet the targeted proficiency goal, then the school is labeled a Failing School. That means that, depending on the target goal, it's possible for the test scores of 10 children in a school of 600 could determine whether a school is considered a failure.
When the general public hears "Failing School," they're not picturing my school. But if you're a new parent to the district or the school and you see that label on my school, wouldn't you be looking for another place to send your kids? And that would be a real shame because you'd be missing out on a great school.

On a happier note, take a minute to look back at Junius heading off for his first day of kindergarten last year. Same backpack, but a smaller boy. Man, he's growing up fast!


  1. This is so interesting. I wonder if any of the schools in my area are "failing" - I will poke around...

  2. Right on, sister. I worked in one of the worst-performing high schools in Massachusetts for years, and I know well how the numbers make a tough situation (which doesn't even seem the case at your school) appear even worse. Good work gets lost in the bad news. And bad news appears to create more bad news. Bravo to you for seeing the value in your school and looking beyond misleading measurements!

  3. This just happened at the school Anna will attend. I was clueless about it until I befriended neighbors with kids there. Thanks for explaining what's happening in such a rational way. Apparently there was much drama and a small exodus last week.


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