Sunday, October 14, 2012



Published: Oct. 10, 2012 Updated: Oct. 11, 2012 12:43 p.m.  ::  For the past decade, "test score day" has been one of the most nervously anticipated events on the school calendar.

Each year, principals and teachers anxiously gather around their computers, waiting to learn if their school met enough testing goals required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act to avoid being labeled as failing. Parents check the scores to see if more students at their campus are learning, then use the data to compare schools against others.

Article Tab: Sixth-grade students at Prospect Elementary read and work on grammar during class in this 2012 file photo. Prospect was among the most improved schools in 2011 on the state's Academic Performance Index.

Sixth-grade students at Prospect Elementary read and work on grammar during class in this 2012 file photo. Prospect was among the most improved schools in 2011 on the state's Academic Performance Index.  LEONARD ORTIZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER>>

But Thursday's release of scores could signal the last time the federal act, introduced in 2002, plays a significant role in measuring achievement in Orange County and across California, educators said.

California will learn over the next few weeks whether it will receive a waiver from the No Child Left Behind requirements. If granted, the state's struggling schools would be freed from having to implement a slew of federal sanctions. Even without the waiver, the increasingly unrealistic goals the act requires will soon make the system impossible to fully implement, educators said.

"These scores are still important, it’s the law we have to abide by and treat serious,” said county Superintendent Al Mijares. "But there is also a lot of ambiguity going forward. Principals, teachers and administrators are unsure where it’s all headed."


No Child Left Behind requires schools meet steadily rising achievement benchmarks until 2014, when 100 percent of students are to be proficient in English and math – a standard educators frequently criticize as impossible. Schools that receive federal funding for at-risk students face sanctions that include having to offer free tutoring, changing leadership, converting to charters or state takeover.

President Barack Obama announced a waiver program in 2011 to allow states to opt out of the much-maligned system if they agree to implement reforms that include tying teacher and principal evaluations to student test scores, enacting standards to prepare students for college and careers, and adopting national common education standards.

Currently, 33 states have received waivers. California submitted its waiver application earlier this year and is among four states waiting for a decision expected by the end of this year from the U.S. Department of Education. If the state receives its waiver, this would be the last year Orange County schools would be subjected to sanctions.

Last year, 61 percent of the nearly 600 public schools in Orange County failed No Child Left Behind testing targets, while 38 percent faced sanctions for repeated failures. Both numbers have steadily increased each of the last few years as testing targets have grown tougher. This year, between 77 percent and 79 percent of students are required by the law to reach proficiency across all grades, up from between 67 percent and 69 percent last year. The goals must be met not only by the students as a whole but by all subgroups, such as different ethnic populations and economically disadvantaged students.

No Child Left Behind "has provided very useful data that helps us determine how much each of our subgroups is learning," said Lydia Ruiz, the Principal at Orange Grove Elementary in Anaheim.

Her campus met all testing targets last year. But Ruiz isn't sure about this year.

"Schools are different, with different challenges. It's hard to measure everyone by the same standard," she said.

Federal officials would not comment on the status of waiver applications. California Superintendent Tom Torlakson has said he's optimistic California's waiver will win approval based on previous approvals for other states that submitted similar applications.

Across Orange County, other educators are hopeful California will win relief from the federal law.

"A 100 percent passing rate has always been a meaningless target because no school would ever reach that," said Kathie Nielsen, chief academic officer at the Tustin Unified School District, where 55 percent of schools failed testing targets last year.

"Implementing these sanctions is becoming so ridiculous. We have schools that have made large academic gains, but more of them are labeled as failing," she said. "It's becoming too costly and time consuming to deal with a punishment that is undeserved."


The state will also release today the Academic Performance Index for all public schools. The API, an aggregate of test scores and other data measured on a scale of 200 to 1000, is different from No Child Left Behind because it gives each school its own growth target, rather than having one rigid target for all schools.

Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that could reduce the use of standardized tests in calculating the annual rankings of California schools. The changes would come into play in 2016. The new API will require that standardized test results make up no more than 60 percent of the index.

The API is often fine-tuned from one year to the next, but the changes for 2016 would be the most significant since the system was introduced in 1999, officials said.

The new API will be calculated using a combination of test scores, attendance and graduation rates, as well as other as yet undetermined measures to gauge student learning. Those measures could include whether students are promoted to the next grade or prepared for college-level courses.

Additionally, the state tests used to calculate the API will likely shift from the current California Standards Tests to a new system based on the state's ongoing implementation of the national Common Core Standards.

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