When Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the Austin (Texas) Independent School District superintendent of schools, discusses the federal No Child Left Behind law, he has a lot to say. Many school administrators, including Forgione, agree the law, which is currently under review by Congress for reauthorization, has good intentions but that federal mandates that are not funded and with a one-size-fits-all package do not work in American schools. Not all students learn the same way or at the same rate.
Over this past school year, the Austin district, which has an operating budget of about $700 million, spent approximately $1,600 per student on NCLB mandates alone, in addition to its per student expenditure rate of $8,500. Since July 2002, the district has spent about $9.8 million on NCLB mandates. Still, nine schools are in the Needs Improvement category.
Forgione, a member of District Administration's Advisory Board, says one advantage of NCLB is its focus on two frequently overlooked student groups-English Language Learners (ELLs) and special education. "We have been working diligently to ensure that all our students [including ELLs and special education] receive rigorous instruction," he says. Another advantage is NCLB's focus on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which has provided valuable information about how all groups of students are doing compared to others in the country, he says.
But Forgione believes the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Some disadvantages are that schools are placed on a Needs Improvement list if only one group of students-for example, ELLs-perform poorly in reading; school choice is offered before Supplemental Educational Services; and the same passing rates and timeline are required for ELLs and special ed students as other students. NCLB also requires that schools in need of improvement set aside 10 percent of their local Title I funds for professional development. "This creates no flexibility in budgeting" because the funds might be better spent in classroom materials or resources, he says. "Campuses should have the flexibility to budget based on identified needs."
Special Education and English Learner Students
In Texas, about 12 percent of students are in special education, Forgione says. In Austin, 5 to 6 percent of students have "significant cognitive disabilities," thus receiving instruction and assessments that are off grade level.
NCLB's 3 percent cap of students assessed off grade level is Austin's greatest concern. "This has major implications regarding our special education and ELLs," he says. "It may or may not be reasonable to assume that only 1 percent of students nationwide are so severely cognitively disabled as to be tested off grade level and/ or to be held to a different performance standard than their peers without disabilities. Also, it may or may not be reasonable to assume that only 2 percent of special education students have disabilities which preclude them from achieving grade-level proficiency or that they may not be likely to achieve grade-level proficiency within the school year covered by the Individual Education Program."
Forgione says that more than 3 percent of students with disabilities require off - grade-level assessments, despite the high quality instruction they receive. Committees comprised of educators and parents make individualized program and assessment decisions for each of the students. "Forcing these student-centered committees to make decisions based on AYP consequences, rather than on student needs, is neither in the best interests of children nor in keeping with IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act]," he says. "We are strong believers in accountability and instructional rigor for all students; however, there are numerous ways to ensure that this is the case. The 3 percent cap does not make good educational sense."
Related to the cap is assessing the newest non-English speaking students, who take on-grade-level assessments in their first years in the country with little or no English language skills. Requiring such students to take and pass such assessments puts the students, mainly in urban areas, and districts at an unfair disadvantage, Forgione says. And for new ELL students, having to learn English and meet on-grade-level assessment standards in English is overwhelming, he adds.
Identifying Needs Improvement
In state and federal accountability systems, some provision is made for examining performance over time. "We support this, but in practice, there are problems with how the rules are applied," Forgione says. "Every year, there are 29 measures that determine whether or not a school has made AYP."
In the federal system, once a school is not making AYP, the odds of entering Year 1 Needs Improvement status appear to increase, he adds. For example, he says, black students at an elementary school did not achieve the reading participation rate standard of 95 percent one year. The following year the students met all the standards. But the ELLs failed to achieve the 53 percent performance standard in reading, even though they had a 10 percent reduction in failure rates from the prior year. So the reading program would seem to be working, but the state will determine the school failed to make AYP for a second year in reading.
"Another problem with 'improvement' analyses per se is that rather than looking at simple improvement from one year to the next, Texas uses two-year averaging to guard against incorrectly identifying a campus as not having made AYP on participation rates alone," he says.
Participation should be isolated in a separate, parallel system that may disqualify a school from having met AYP but should not place a school in jeopardy under a Needs Improvement list. "We had one school last year to have met AYP in one subject area's participation rate, but the state included one more student in the school's [enrollment] count, which caused the school to be rated as not meeting AYP for the second consecutive year and placing the school in Year 1 Needs Improvement," he says.
Furthermore, Forgione adds, it is unfair and punitive that when a campus meets the AYP standards, it is required to remain frozen at Needs Improvement status with the same sanctions for an additional year.
Remedies Should Be Shifted
Forgione thinks the sequence of punishment now under NCLB should also be shifted. Supplemental Educational Services should be offered before school transfer options. While this is done on a waiver basis now, it should be available for all districts, he says.
He adds that talk of school reconstitution or closure after two consecutive years of poor performance seems excessive given that it usually takes three to five years of sustained effort to significantly improve a troubled campus. Under the federal system, transfer options were required based on preliminary, not final, AYP results. Some schools that met AYP had to provide choices of other schools with transportation, he says. "That is expensive and unfair and introduces costs that pull funds from academic programs when adequate funding is critical."
Keeping track of which students are entitled to transportation to which schools for how many years will be an "administrative nightmare," forcing inefficiency and unanticipated costs, he says.
Moreover, different state and federal standards are confusing. Eight schools in AISD are academically acceptable under the state system, but some of them are on a Missed AYP list and Needs Improvement status list under the federal system.
Extensive Intervention in Austin
Districts are often criticized for low participation in SES programs, but a key reason is that districts like Austin already provide extensive interventions to students, Forgione says. For example, AISD offers Saturday school, academies and camps that prepare students to take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, summer school, 21st century enrichment programs, and after-school tutoring. A successful strategy is double blocking English/language arts and/or math classes. Computer-based instruction and specific interventions, such as Scholastic's READ 180, are also helping struggling students.
AISD has shown continuous growth over the past seven years under the Texas State Accountability System, Forgione says. "We do believe, however," he adds, "that changes would result in a federal accountability system that is more fair to all students, better at directing money where it is most needed to enhance student participation and performance, and better at measuring a district's progress."
Angela Pascopella is senior features editor of District Administration