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Inside The Law

Inside the Law

Legal issues at national, state and local levels.

Tests Reveal American Schools Have Long Way to Go

The nation's focus on elementary schools over the past decade is revealing itself on the latest state and national tests in reading and math while middle and high schools still struggle to close achievement gaps between poor and minority children and white and more affluent peers.

"The focus has been about the elementary grades, to get them early, like immunization," said The Education Trust Director Kati Haycock, in a recent teleconference about the study. "But in truth, education is not like immunization. Education is more like nutrition. You have to get it right early and keep getting it right."

The Education Trust's report, Primary Progress, Secondary Challenge: A State-by-State Look at Student Achievement Patterns, shows in part that while many students were reaching proficiency on their state's grade-level standards between 2003 and 2005, they were not reaching them on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, forcing educators to question the rigor of state tests and standards. Only 29 percent of the nation's eighth graders are proficient in reading and math on NAEP, but most states report much higher proficiency rates on their own tests.

"If there are huge differences, especially where states are reporting higher proficiency levels on NAEP ... then there is reason to be doubtful," Haycock said. So the question becomes: " 'Is our state expecting enough from our kids?' "

Education Trust's Senior Policy Analyst Daria Hall, lead author, said that states are making progress, but they need to accelerate gains for low-income and minority students.

In Mississippi, Idaho and South Dakota, for example, they show that at least 87 percent of students are proficient or above on state assessments for elementary reading in 2005. However, only 18 percent to 33 percent of students were proficient or higher on the NAEP fourth grade reading section. "The overwhelming message ... is we need to be asking more of our kids," she said.

As Urban Students Turn ?ber

Although The Education Trust's report shows discrepancies between state test results and the National Assessment of Educational Progress results, urban school achievement in reading and math continues to climb in both tests.

The new annual study released by the Council of Great City Schools called Beating the Odds, shows that students in 66 major cities in 38 states posted new gains in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading on state assessments in 2005.

And for first time, the study compared state and NAEP test scores, which show parallel upward achievement. The gap between white and Hispanic students in fourth-grade math narrowed by more than 71 percent, and by about 57 percent in eighth grade. And reading gaps narrowed by 85 percent between white and black fourth graders and narrowed by 63 percent in eighth grade.

"The urban NAEP gains mirror the gains we are seeing on state tests; NAEP does not negate them," says Michael Casserly, the council's executive director.

The American Legislative Exchange Council affirmed the principles of No Child Left Behind in stating that the law is about closing the achievement gap. "Today, that commitment is paying off. Test scores are rising and more minority students are catching up to their peers than ever before, especially in early grades."

State Testing Standards Under Federal Review

So far, Delaware and South Carolina had their state standards and assessment requirements under the No Child Left Behind law OK'd by the U.S. Department of Education.

But Oregon and Indiana have to return to the drawing board. And as of mid-April, the other 46 states had yet to have their standards reviewed.

"It is essential that the
academic achievement standards be developed based on the current grade-level content standards."
-Henry L. Johnson, assistant secretary, federal DOE

This school year is the first year that the federal government is requiring states to have schools test every student in grades 3 through 8 under NCLB. Prior, states only had to test once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school, according to Chad Colby, a department spokesman. South Carolina was already testing in grades 3 through 8 prior to this year, Colby notes.

After states submit the standards and assessments used, external peer reviewers in the education community and the Education Department evaluate each plan.

In Oregon's case, for example, it had failed to meet achievement standards because they were set before academic content standards. "It is essential that the academic achievement standards be developed based on the current grade-level content standards," states Henry L. Johnson, assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, in a letter to Oregon.

Delaware's plan meets requirements of NCLB in part because it includes alternate achievement standards for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

Chattanooga's Choice

Just before No Child Left Behind was signed into law, several elementary schools in the Hamilton County School District in Chattanooga, Tenn. were on the lowest achievement scale, according to Superintendent Jesse Register.

Just before Hamilton merged with the Chattanooga district schools in 1997, the teacher union's conditions had created a "revolving door" in low performing schools where new teachers were leaving after one to three years of service. So administrators worked with the union to create a scenario where high quality teachers were in the most-needed schools.

Two changes were made: Administrators and the union agreed to a recruitment incentive that gave $5,000 a year to high quality teachers to teach in inner city schools for at least three years and the schools that started to show measurable gains on tests also gave $1,000 to $2,000 to every teacher in the building.

Test scores rose so that the second lowest performing school six years ago was the first school to move completely off the NCLB warning list and now all nine schools are in the top 10 percent of schools in the state, Register says. He attributes it in part to the more experienced teachers. "The key to success is having quality teachers and good leadership," Register adds.

Tech Literacy Gets Popular

How to measure proficiency among students with information and communication technology?

TechLiteracy Assessment, an online assessment tool to measure elementary and middle school students' tech savvy, recently came on the market,, while NETS Online Technology Assessment helps teachers measure student skills in using software and helps measure student progress toward meeting the National Educational Technology Standards for Students, or NETS-S. ISTE's NETS Project is designed to enable stakeholders in preK-12 education to develop national standards for educational uses of technology.

And ProfilerPro evaluates knowledge, attitude and skill based on simple surveys implemented via the Web.