No District Left Untouched
Groundwork for the recently approved education bill started simply enough. Educators, business people, parents, and community leaders in Hamilton, Ohio, met last March.
This mini-education summit, called by U.S. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, unveiled a school district where students are tested and assessed every year, full-day kindergarten is in place, parents can choose what school their child attends, and teachers undergo continuous staff development training.
Since this 10,000-student Hamilton City School District served as part of the impetus for the new bill, it was fitting that President Bush returned to the district's high school to sign "No Child Left Behind" into law.
"What we found by hosting the summit was that a lot of what was being touted by the president and the administration as sound practices for reform and improvement, our school district was engaged in those practices," says Superintendent Janet Baker.
The new law is the most sweeping reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since its enactment in 1965. Redefining the federal role in K-12 education, it is designed to close the achievement gap between minority/disadvantaged students and others, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The biggest change facing school districts is the testing requirement. The bill calls for annual testing of students in grades 3-8 in reading and math, increases accountability for states and school districts, and gives greater choice for parents and students attending schools that receive Title I money if those schools fail to meet state standards. About $387 million in federal funds would help states develop assessments and fund the program, according to Melinda Malico, a Department of Education spokeswoman.
The Five Steps
To date, only nine states carry out standards-based testing: California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Utah.
Although she's not from one of those states, Baker says her district already tests students from K-12. The bill also emphasizes basic skills and early literacy, Baker's district was among the first in Ohio to implement full-day kindergarten.
She adds that her district established an inter-district choice policy, where parents can choose to send their children to a particular school in the district based on specific programs it offers, such as an arts infusion program.
The five main steps that districts nationwide should follow, according to Baker, to meet the new law's requirements include:
It's in the Details
In other districts, leaders are still trying to gather details of the law, wondering how they will meet the requirements. Tom Houlihan, executive director of The Council on Chief State School Officers, adds that "no one really knows what steps" to take until the U.S. education department's rules and regulations are final.
The law puts more teeth into what has been a trend since the 1990s, says Barbara Nadler, CEO of SEE Corp., a company that promotes educational excellence. States should continue to identify core curriculum content standards and what levels students need to acquire, while making teachers aware of the specifications of what they should be teaching and informing parents specifically what kind of books and/or resources their children will need to achieve, she adds.
"You know the emperor's new clothes?" she says. "That's what education is about. ... If we say it is, it is. If we say our teachers are using curriculum that is aligned to state standards" that's one thing, she says.
"But it isn't true" all the time, she says. You have to give students real information on where they are, where they need to be, and provide the resources to achieve that, she says.
In West Bloomfield (Mich.) School District, which has 6,500 students, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program already tests fourth and eighth graders in math and reading, and fourth, seventh and eighth graders in science and social studies. Fifth and eighth graders undergo writing tests.
But Seymour Gretchko, superintendent of schools, wonders how the new law will gauge growth. "I think generating accurate data in terms of looking at student growth annually is going to be a difficult job," he says. It will be difficult in part because 30 percent of the students in West Bloomfield, an affluent suburb, move every year, Gretchko says. And he says some students don't make progress for years, but then could make leaps in a year.
Some school leaders say they don't necessarily oppose more testing if it's designed to teach more.
But Gretchko says lawmakers and educators should be careful that the "generation of data is not simply for the sake of generating data," he says.
Gretchko says measurement is not easy, but one educational tool the district uses has helped teachers use data that help students learn.
Compass Learning, an educational technology solutions company, offers assessment tools in math and reading, as well as other subjects for K-12. It is among several educational technology solution companies that help educators assess a student's comprehension of subjects (see sidebar).
In the Washington Local Schools District in Toledo, Ohio, administrators anticipate a lot of work under the new law, according to Sue Pedro, district elementary curriculum director. "Anything that helps education is a good idea," Pedro says. But, she says, standards and curriculum constantly change.
"From what I understand [about the law], there's going to be a lot more testing and diagnosis," Pedro says. "I was just reading something ... and there was a lot in there about what districts are required to do to train teachers to diagnose reading difficulties among children in classrooms. ... I think the bigger concern for me is-how are we going to get everyone trained?"
Jefferson Junior High School there has also used an educational tool to help students achieve more in testing. In 1997, nearly half of the students entering Jefferson from elementary school did not pass the math and science portions of the sixth-grade Ohio Proficiency Test. The tools the teachers used, SuccessMaker courseware from NCS Learn, supposedly helped to significantly improve ninth-grade proficiency in math and science, she says.That idea is linked to the new education bill, says Steve Gardner, NCS Learn's vice president of marketing and business development. "We've talked about accountability, student achievement, more data-driven [tools]."
"All the goals and objectives are to provide more focus for students and make sure schools are providing solid instruction and gains in student achievement," he says. "Those are worthy goals."
In Minneapolis, students are tested every year from first through ninth grade using the Northwest Area Levels Test, according to Robert Wedl, district executive director of policy and planning.
In addition, the state tests third graders and eighth graders in reading and math, and fifth graders in reading, math and writing. In addition, tenth graders are tested in writing. Starting next year, eleventh graders will be tested in reading, math and language arts.
Wedl says his area's tests are used in addition to state tests, because they are geared more toward non-English speaking children and those with significant needs, which encompasses many Minneapolis students. "And it's tied more to the standards of what we're trying to teach children in reading and math."
Wedl says he hopes NALT, which is a local test, will cover what is required in the new federal law. "We, along with urban districts, use the NALT because it not only measures where you are, but your growth over time," Wedl says. "We believe our test is clearly authorized under the new law. The question is: Will the state recognize that?"
Angela Pascopella, firstname.lastname@example.org, is associate features editor.