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Are we leaving any students behind?
Educators say federal mandates needs revisions
0907Allene Magill
Allene Magill, executive director of Professional Association of Georgia Educatiors


Hear Betsy Vanausdoll, a special education teacher at Chestnut Mountain Elementary School, detail the ups and downs of the federal mandate’s effect on special education students.


Hear Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County schools, discuss the gifted students he said he feels are being left behind.


Hear Tim Callahan, communications director for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, recount conversations about No Child Left Behind he has had with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.
What educators are saying

"The main things that we've been telling them when we go to Washington every year is ... it can take three or four in some schools, special needs students or students of second languages to cause a school not to meet AYP. We believe there needs to be some changes in that."
Allene Magill
Executive Director, Professional Association of Georgia Educators

"Let's look at students over time. Let's not take a snapshot of this year's fourth grade and compare it to a snapshot of last year's fourth grade. That's apples and oranges and we all know it."
Tim Callahan
Communications Director, Professional Association of Georgia Educators

"Forty years from now, when history is written, we're going to look back and say, ‘What in the world were we thinking? We were asleep at the wheel. And the very children we needed to be pushing to do so much more, were indeed the group that was left behind."
Will Schofield
Hall County school superintendent

"We're not talking about manufacturing widgets in a plant, we're talking about human beings who are diverse ... and it's going to be difficult to measure them using the same test."
Betsy Vanausdoll
Special education teacher, Chestnut Mountain Elementary School

Scoreboards glowing above stadiums nationwide this fall will tell cheering fans if their team is winning. In the education arena, it's No Child Left Behind, the federal mandate President George W. Bush signed into law in early 2002, that keeps America's score on education.

On the regional, state and local levels, educators agree the goal of the mandate is noble. It holds schools accountable for educating every student, whether they are economically disadvantaged, speak English as a second language or have learning disabilities.

Yet educators say the devil is in the details in this mandate for all of the roughly 15,000 public school systems in the country, and they're pushing politicians to make some real changes in the law when it comes up for reauthorization in the next congressional session.

Tim Callahan, communications director for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said the most positive improvement No Child Left Behind brought to America's public schools is its emphasis on data and mandated accountability.

"If there weren't scoreboards, nobody would be in the stadium," Callahan said of the law. "It's brought a lot of public attention to education ... But you need a student (testing) information system that is very robust and rigorous."

Numerous leaders in education are calling for the reauthorization to clean the scoreboard by implementing new ways to measure student achievement. Put on hiatus due in part to the presidential election, the reauthorization for No Child Left Behind could allow the education committees in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the U.S. Senate to draft separate versions of the law as soon as January.

Callahan said No Child Left Behind requires schools to meet state-identified test scores on state tests and for high schools to graduate a percentage of students using a state-generated formula in order to make Adequate Yearly Progress.

With each successive year a school or school system does not meet AYP and is labeled a Needs Improvement school, more penalties are imposed, including mandated after-school tutoring opportunities for students up to state intervention.

Nearly 69 percent of Georgia school systems met AYP this year, according to the state Department of Education.

The ultimate goal of the law is for 100 percent of U.S. students to be performing on grade level by the year 2014.

For the first time ever, the Hall County school system met AYP in the 2007-2008 school year. The Gainesville school system did not meet AYP last school year, though only Gainesville Middle School fell into the Needs Improvement category.

While many educators applaud the law's focus on students who don't fit the average English-speaking student mold, many said they are frustrated with the state tests that may vary in academic scope and rigor in each of the 50 states. Local teachers, principals and superintendents said they are frustrated with the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, the test Georgia uses to measure AYP for elementary and middle schools under No Child Left Behind. Instead of the CRCT, some favor a growth model assessment that tracks the academic progress of the same group of students as they begin and end each grade and move toward high school graduation.

Allene Magill, executive director of PAGE, said the state Department of Education's decision to throw out social studies scores from April's CRCT due to poor student scores has left some teachers feeling like failures. She said the state social studies test was not appropriately aligned with the curriculum that teachers were instructing. Abysmal math scores for eighth-graders dealt another blow to teachers.

"I have compassion for the teachers that are going through that with the social studies and with the science, with cutoff scores (for passing) changing," Magill said. "Teachers must feel like they're on a roller coaster ride with all this."

Alan Richard, communications director for the Southern Regional Education Board, said Georgia is among a few states in the Southeast that is voluntarily raising its academic standards in the classroom and increasing rigor on state tests, which puts students in the present bind of catching up to that new level.

"You've realigned the state test to measure those new standards, and that's why you're seeing, whoa, 60 percent passing the state test, and that's because it's harder," Richard said.

"So what's happening is states are voluntarily saying, ‘OK, we're on track to meet No Child Left Behind, but we're voluntarily going to push ourselves back and meet a higher standard,'" he said. "And that's why you're seeing some discussion about growth models ... as a sort of regulatory way for states to continue to meet targets toward the eventual goal of 100 percent."

Measuring a year's growth with national assessments
Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County schools, is among those voicing a desire for the updated law to include a longitudinal growth model.

"To report to me what the average scores of 150 fourth-graders were last year and what the average scores are of 150 different fourth-graders this year, while it might make a nice headline, it doesn't give me much usable information," Schofield said. "The CRCT wasn't designed to measure growth. It was designed to measure whether students have learned a specified body of knowledge.

"What we ought to insist upon is regardless of where a child comes to us, that they gain a minimum of a year's growth in mathematics and in reading. I can't imagine being serious about No Child Left Behind and not beginning with that promise," he said.

Schofield suggested the key to ensuring that schools are performing up to snuff is by measuring the value add of the educational system using a national standardized test under No Child Left Behind. He pointed to Finland, Singapore and Japan as global leaders in education that use national curriculums and national tests.

"I'd probably be in the vast minority here, but what I think we need is national standards and we need national assessments," he said. "A child in Nebraska ought to be getting the same assessments as a child in Georgia, particularly if we're going to compare states to states, which is what we like to do."

The challenges of every child meeting the same standards
Betsy Vanausdoll is on the front lines of this controversy. She's a special education teacher at Chestnut Mountain Elementary School, which did not meet AYP last school year for the first time. Sabrina May, principal of Chestnut Mountain Elementary, said the school did not meet AYP due to only two special education students who did not pass the CRCT.

Schofield said like Chestnut Mountain Elementary, Flowery Branch and Lanier elementary schools did not meet AYP due to a handful of special education students who failed to make the same CRCT score No Child Left Behind requires of average ability students. Magill and Schofield said they believe it's crucial for the law to distinguish in published reports by how many students a school made AYP, or by how many they were relegated to a Needs Improvement label.

Vanausdoll and May said they believe including the growth model component to No Child Left Behind would help special education students and English-language learners compete in the national education race rather than leaving them in the wake of native English-speaking students who aren't autistic or have learning disabilities.

"We're measuring special education students against students without disabilities," Vanausdoll said. "If they didn't even know their letters last year, well, they've made a year's growth, they're doing great, but they're not on grade level, which is what the CRCT tests - just grade level."

Teachers' creativity and gifted students left behind
May also said the federal mandate has changed the way schools operate in recent years. She said while teachers are taking a more professional instructional approach under the law, it's also stifling their creative freedom in the classroom in favor of high-stakes testing.

"There used to be more of a focus on the art of teaching, now it's more of a focus on the science of teaching," she said.

While Hall County educators said the school system focuses on the whole student, including character development and academic rigor, as well as on a student passing the CRCT or the Georgia High School Graduation Test, Schofield said there's still a group of students nationwide who aren't getting the attention they deserve in the classroom: "the run of the mill" and gifted students.

"I think it's going to be a huge mistake in all kinds of issues, the most fundamental being the very competitiveness of the United States as a nation," Schofield said. "The children that sit in our classrooms could cure cancer ... and are the very children that aren't getting very much attention."

Schofield said he's concerned No Child Left Behind's emphasis on test scores has encouraged school systems nationwide to forsake class time in foreign language, communication skills and technology, all skills he considers vital for students to compete in the 21st century workplace.

"We can offer Mandarin Chinese ... for little children. It won't show up on a No Child Left Behind report ... and quite honestly, that's the reason why a lot of districts have abandoned and not gone down those roads," Schofield said.

Georgia educators aren't keeping their discontent with No Child Left Behind quiet. Magill and Callahan are working to affect change in the tension between state educators and the federal mandate.

"We're going to Washington in three weeks to talk to our Congressional delegation as we have every year for the past several years," Callahan said. "No Child Left Behind will be a large part of our conversation."

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