Allthe children may be above average in Lake Woebegone but ... in Washington state?

Published on Thu, Mar 10, 2005 by arren Aller

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All the children may be above average
in Lake Woebegone but ... in Washington state?

By Warren Aller

Garrison Keillor claims all the children are above average in Lake Woebegone, but I have not found that to be the case in the schools I have been involved with in Washington state. Political pundits criticize the schools and claim all students are below average; I have not found that to be the case either. What I have found is what one might expect, some above average, some below, and the preponderance in the average range. How surprising since that is the definition of average.

After 30 years as a public school teacher and principal, I have a unique opportunity to visit schools and work with principals and teachers in the seven northwest counties in Washington as an adjunct professor of educational administration for Western Washington University. I am becoming increasingly concerned with what I am seeing as I walk through the doors of schools at all levels. Oh, I am seeing the expected – kids bustling through the halls, some laughing, some talking boisterously, some serious, and others in their own worlds. Teachers are mingling with the kids, talking and encouraging, while others are hurrying to their classrooms with armfuls of materials.

Generally people choose education because they want to help other people to learn and grow. There is no substitute for that euphoric feeling when the student’s face lights up with a, “Oh! I get it now!” At that moment, teachers know they have made a difference and that is what it is all about. That is happening on a daily basis in our schools, but it is often overlooked and vastly overshadowed by the picture of negative happenings in school the public is so often fed. The other face of the school I am seeing that concerns me greatly is the sallow face of anxiety. The federal and to some extent the state bureaucracies are fostering a system of failure and negativity relative to our public schools. Let me explain how this contributes to the free-floating angst out there.

Each year students in grades four, seven and soon in grade 10 take the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). This statewide test measures student’s progress in reading, writing, math, and science according to the number of correct responses, not on a percentage scale based on a norm like most of the tests we are accustomed to. The criteria for passage are quite high. Since this is a public activity with public funds, the scores are published for each grade tested and school. This kind of performance pressure is not new to schools, so the teachers and administrators accept this with aplomb and work hard to help students to do well.

The twist came with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act – a comprehensive piece of federal legislation signed into law on January 8, 2002. This law requires that all schools make Adequate Yearly Progress known as AYP. Adequate Yearly Progress is defined, as all students in all categories must make continuous academic gains up to everyone being at 100 percent in 2014. The eight categories students are forced into in Washington state are: American Indian; Asian/Pacific Islander; Black; Hispanic; White; Special Education; Limited English; and Low Income. High schools must increase their graduation rates by one percent per year up to 85 percent by 2014 to make AYP. Elementary and middle schools must have an unexcused absentee rate of one percent or less to make the mark.

It is disheartening and a bit misleading that no matter how well schools do, the best they can become is “Adequate.” Furthermore if any sub-group does not make the standard, the entire school fails to make Adequate Yearly Progress. The accountability system is not value added so if a school’s scores were exceptionally low one year and they improved dramatically the next but still fell short of the benchmark, the school still does not make AYP and, therefore, is inadequate by definition.

The negative aspect of the process is further exacerbated by the punishment that is meted out to schools that fail to make AYP.

1) Any school that has any sub group failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress for two consecutive years will be identified as “In need of improvement.” These schools must adopt two-year improvement plans, invest in professional development for teachers and give parents the option to transfer their children to a higher performing public school in the district with the district using its Title 1 funds to pay for transportation. Priority transfers will go to the lower achieving low-income students. The irony of this provision is that nearly all schools receiving regular Title 1 funds are currently using 100 percent of them to assist low achieving students in verbal skills and math. So the law requires schools to cut services to low achieving students to provide transportation for school choice because some sub group of low achieving students have failed the WASL for more than two testing cycles. The other ironic issue is that it is assumed that a school making AYP will willingly accept an additional burden of more students who score below standard, thus making their jobs even more difficult and jeopardizing their chance of continuing to make AYP on an ever escalating standard. “Give me your poor, your huddled masses…” may work well on the Statue of Liberty, but when the black helicopters are hovering over a school, self survival may well prevail.

2) After three continuous years where any sub-group fails to make AYP, the school must continue its improvement efforts, fund transportation for public school choice, and give students from low income families the option of obtaining supplemental education services from state approved providers using some of the district’s Title 1 funds. Again, Title 1 funds are to be cut for classroom assistance in core subjects to pay for private educational businesses to educate others.

3) After four years, the school must continue its improvement efforts, and is also subject to “corrective action.” Corrective action is taken by the school district and must involve one or more of the following: implementing a new curriculum, replacing school staff, appointing an outside expert as advisor, extending the school day/year, or restructuring the school. The law is silent on such details as to where the money comes from to purchase new curricular materials, extending the school day or year, or how to go about replacing the school employees who are under contract.

4) After five years, schools must plan for restructuring, which may involve replacing staff or contracting with a private firm to manage the school. Again, the law is silent on how schools are to deal with the legalities of contracts with employees.

At this time there are 84 districts in Washington State that have not made Adequate Yearly Progress. That number may well increase after this spring when the WASL will be given again. Because the bar will be raised in stair step increments, one can expect the number of failing schools to rise if not next year in the ones to follow.

Most people realize there is more to a person than his or her intellect. The parts of us that make us successful other than our mental acumen are our emotional stability, social adeptness, spirituality, and creativeness. These facets are being neglected or at the least minimized by the emphasis on a narrow band of intellectual endeavors and high stakes testing. It is interesting to note according to the last census data, only 27.7 percent of persons 25 or more years of age have a bachelor’s degree or better. Yet the focus of our state and nation squeezes all high school students into a college preparatory track, cuts many programs for them if they fail the WASL and gives them the opportunity to re-take classes in which they have little interest or ability while at the same time punishing the school that does not prevent them from dropping out.

The state legislature is currently wrestling with a significant shortfall of money. The Washington state constitution places a paramount duty on the state to fully fund education. The costs of education continue to rise due to an historical increase in students in the state. Over the census decade of 1990 to 2000, the child population of Washington state grew by 20 percent compared to a national average growth of only 14 percent. The student population continues to be more needy and thus more costly to educate. What are the law makers to do?

The WASL is extremely expensive to administer and to score as each piece of writing is read and scored by hand. According to Dr. Donald Orlich at WSU, the WASL costs approximately $27 per student per year as compared to a norm referenced test such as the ITBS or MAT of approximately $2.86. However, the real expense comes in the lack of educational breadth suffered by students. Because the pressures on schools are so focused and intense on reading, writing, math, and science, other subjects that provide a well rounded education are being diminished. The No Child Left Behind legislation requires every seventh grade child who fails the WASL to have a personal education plan delineating academic improvement on the failed areas. Such plans supercede non-tested subjects such as physical education, fine arts, foreign languages, social sciences and vocational courses.

Provisions for accommodating students with disabilities on the WASL are few. Students from other countries who do not have a command of English, may be exempt from the reading and writing sections for one year, but they are expected to have a fairly sophisticated ability in English for the next year when they will not be exempt. Fluency in English in one year may be possible for a kindergartener, but for a 16 to 18-year -old young adult, it is a pipe dream. Newly immigrated non-English speaking students do have to take the math section in spite of the fact that a great deal of the math is of a problem solving nature where words are crucial to the solution. Special education students may be allowed to be taken out of level tests if appropriate; however, some students with handicapping conditions cannot or will not take the test. State regulations relative to testing with the WASL require severely handicapped children who may not even be able to read, speak, or do cognitive tasks to have a portfolio showing continual progress made in lieu of the WASL. This is an extremely time consuming and thus expensive task.

Our founding fathers deemed education to be a right of the individual states and local school boards. It boggles one’s mind to realize that the federal government trumped all the states and local boards of education with the No Child Left Behind Act. About five to nine percent (depending on which school district one asks) of school district budgets in Washington state are made up of federal funds. The stick the U.S. Department of Education threatens to hit the states and local school districts with is the withholding of federal funds; all five to nine percent of them! However in times of tight fiscal considerations, local districts and states cannot afford to lose that much money no matter how many strings are attached to it. So, local control is eroded once again.

The purpose of this communication is not to inflame anyone into political activism, but rather to encourage people to take a thoughtful look at what is going on within the walls of our schools. Please don’t believe reports showing just numbers as being the measure of a school nor certainly of a child.

Don’t look at the state’s ranking of the schools based on just WASL scores in their report card and believe that is the whole story on the worth of a school or a group of young people. To do that is like judging the worth of adults by comparing the balances in their checking accounts!

When you hear disquieting news concerning your local school, please don’t accept it at face value, but remember every news story is written with an angle meant to pique reader interest. When you are concerned or even curious, please call the school and talk with the administration. Do what you can do to help. Become involved in the education of a young person. Non-paid concerned adults are scarce in schools and research shows that the involvement of a caring adult in the life of a young person helps him or her academically, socially and emotionally. It also doesn’t take a lot of an adult mentor’s time and energy to make a real difference for a young person.

This will not remedy the embedded flaws of the No Child Left Behind Legislation, but it can help individual children learn and achieve to the best of their
abilities.

(Warren Aller was an administrator for many years at the Blaine school district. He was principal of Blaine elementary and Blaine middles schools.)