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Inside The Law

Inside The Law

Analyzing, Debating and Explaining No Child Left Behind

Charter Schools Likely to Grow

Is it a better option? Will students learn more, test better? These questions continue to linger around charter schools and charter districts.

While there is no definitive answer, what is certain is that charter schools help answer a demand of the No Child Left Behind Act. Charters are one option for students in low-performing schools who want to transfer to better schools. Already, policy makers in California, the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania have created charter districts. Charter schools exist in 40 states.

"I see more charter schools being created over the long term," says Todd Ziebarth, governance program director at the Education Commission of the States, which has created Nuts & Bolts of Charter Districts, a document to help districts create such schools. "It's really trying to give people and schools ownership of a school, which is important in this era of accountability," he says.

In charter schools, students have to meet state standards at the least. But schools can have higher standards. Some charter schools serve students who don't test well so these schools try to create meaningful accountability standards beyond tests scores, Ziebarth says.

Although Chicago is not a charter district, it does have 17 charters serving 10,500 students, or 2 percent of the total Chicago public school student population. "I do think charter schools offer an opportunity to educate students in their own school buildings, where the people in the school know the children best and ... they have the power to do something about it," says Greg Richmond, Chicago's chief of new schools development.

Chicago has charter schools that cater to girls as well as minorities. In some neighborhoods where immigrant populations are growing, schools try to keep the bond between student and parent. One charter school helps parents better understand American education and what children are experiencing so parents don't feel bewildered by their Americanized children.

Richmond says that while such schools appear to segregate minorities, the old system of mixing them with others doesn't help struggling students. "We have to recognize the other cold hard facts around the mythology in the good old days. The reality is that I don't think the good old days worked very well for many kids," Richmond says.

In comparing how Chicago students do in reading, math, state tests, attendance and graduation rates in charter schools compared to traditional schools, the charter performance is better on 75 percent of the measures. "I think charter schools can work. It's not a magic bullet," says Richmond. "But this can work.",

Feds Relax Rules

In a turnaround, the federal government will allow students with significant cognitive disabilities to take an alternative achievement test in reading and math to calculate adequate yearly progress under NCLB.

The change means that certain disabled students, such as those who have trouble holding a pencil or tying their shoes, will be spared taking the same test that other students, without disabilities, take to determine if they are learning adequate information year after year.

"Some felt we weren't being realistic, expecting some students with significant disabilities to meet this standard," says Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education. "So this is to strike a balance ... and maintain accountability aspects of the law."

Up to 1 percent of scores from all students, disabled or non-disabled, will use this alternative assessment, or about 9 percent of students with disabilities. If a state or school district can demonstrate they have a higher proportion of students with significant cognitive disabilities, they can exceed the 1 percent cap.

The students with the most severe disabilities will be assessed by their achievement of standards that are appropriate for their intellectual development, according to Bradshaw.

NAEP Results: Urban Students Left Behind

Students in some of the country's largest urban districts are scoring below the national average on math and reading tests, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The nation's report card looked at 10 urban districts to set the city benchmark. Districts are required to track progress on the test under NCLB.

While urban scores are below the national average, urban students still compete well with their peers in other districts that have the same race, ethnicity or economic level.

Nationally, 30 percent of fourth graders and eighth graders reached proficient level, or mastery, over difficult material in reading. And 31 percent of fourth graders and 27 percent of eighth graders reach proficiency in math. Most urban students did worse, the new scores show. But in Charlotte, N.C., students tested at the national level in reading and exceeded it in math. Charlotte has fewer minorities than other urban districts, but has also tried to bring more black children into high-level math courses, according to Ross Wiener of The Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority students. View information related to this story below.

Mexican-born Student Prepares for Test

Jose Manuel Lopez just came to America from his homeland of Mexico last August and is supposed to take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test in April--a requirement under the No Child Left Behind Act.

While the 13-year-old seventh grader in the Irving Independent School District could not even answer questions in English for this story--his teacher had to translate for him--he must take TAKS in English in two months, and is expected to pass at his grade level, in English, reading and math. Meanwhile, he reads and writes in English on a first-grade level.

Jessica Benschoter, his English as a Second Language teacher and the ESL department lead teacher, says it is an unfair challenge. "Honestly, it does bother me because I foresee it killing their confidence," Benschoter says. "So many of these immigrant and migrant children have other factors and issues to deal with that failure in school doesn't need to or shouldn't be added. Many are bright and intelligent--they just don't have the proficiency in English to express that ... yet." Many non-English speaking students who had three years to learn the language before NCLB are now forced to take standardized tests in English, says Tonie Garza, district director of the ESL/bilingual/migrant programs.

Jose's parents are migrant workers from Mexico. His father works as a tortilla packager while his mother works for a chicken packaging company.

Under No Child Left Behind, Jose is served in the migrant and Title III programs for English language learners. Among nearly 400 students in the program, out of 31,000 students in the district, migrant students and their families are informed of support services as well as given school supplies. Jose also receives extra help and tutoring when necessary.

While he struggles with English, Jose says he is no quitter and has grand ambitions to be a doctor to help less fortunate people. "He'll be doing something [in class] and stop, and look around because he doesn't know a word and he'll write a sentence and erase it, and write again. And then he'll ask for a dictionary. ... He is persistent," Benschoter says. "He wants to do the best he can. The deficiency I see in him is his language. He does have the education [in Spanish] to be where he needs to be."

Benschoter says despite her disapproval of TAKS for her students, she is preparing them with basics in vocabulary, familiarizing them with how the test is written, and how to write essays with introductions and conclusions.

"I'm going to do," she says, "the best I can."

Jose is the second student in our series following students nationwide to determine how No Child Left Behind is helping or not helping them learn.

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