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Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008 | Small things helped Baker Elementary nudge its test scores higher, the first step toward escaping its label as a failing school under No Child Left Behind. When Principal Yvonne Johnson stepped into the southeast San Diego school in the fall from a 30-plus year career in Texas, the changes were already in effect. Teachers collaborate to plan lessons; across the school, educators tout one-on-one attention for kids.

“Everything seemed to work,” Johnson said. “They’ve been working hard to shed the label.”

In 2007, test scores surged 7 percent, and higher percentages of kids scored proficient on other state tests, helping Baker to meet state expectations in 2007. That standard, known as “adequate yearly progress,” is the state’s measure of whether schools succeed or fail under the federal No Child Left Behind.

If Baker progresses again this year, the school can shed its “Program Improvement” label. The tag, placed on schools that don’t meet progress goals, is considered a stain on the school’s name by parents and teachers. Parents can opt to pull their children out of Program Improvement schools to attend other district schools, siphoning attendance and the funding that comes with it from individual schools.

But schools like Baker must hit rapidly increasing targets under No Child Left Behind in the coming years, just as school budgets are likely to be slashed by the state. Greater and greater percentages of students of every stripe must score high on state tests, lest their schools be tagged as failures.

Last year, roughly 25 percent of California students were required to score proficient in English and math; this year, about 35 percent must do so, and in 2009, around 46 percent have to pass. Year by year, the standard surges by more than 10 percent.

Baker cleared the bar in 2007 with 27.8 percent of its students reaching proficiency on English tests — besting the state goal of 24.4 percent. Next year, the school must prod an additional 7.4 percent of kids to proficiency in English in order to escape Program Improvement. At the same time, the school expects to weather a 17 percent cut in federal funding earmarked for disadvantaged kids, while bearing its own share of the state budget cuts.

The controversial No Child Left Behind law requires schools to show annual improvement, with the eventual goal of hitting 100 percent proficiency on state math and English tests in 2013. If any subgroup in a school falls short of state-set goals — students with disabilities, for example, or low-income kids — the school is tagged with the Program Improvement label. In California, those goals have increased slightly since 2001, and will skyrocket between 2008 and 2013.

Each year that a school stays in Program Improvement, the district directs new resources at the school: first extra tutoring, then an intervention team from the school district that maps out a unique action plan to better the school. If a school can’t pull out of Program Improvement, it’s eventually forced to restructure by replacing staff, splitting into smaller schools or any other significant school-wide transformation — the intended endpoint of No Child Left Behind’s plan to fix faltering schools.

But restructuring can mean wildly different things, and is no guarantee of success. Statewide, a recent study by the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C. found that only 5 percent of restructured California schools boosted scores enough to avoid Program Improvement again. In San Diego, restructured schools have taken diverging paths.

After plunging into Program Improvement, Gompers Middle School went charter in 2005, and has earned acclaim for its safe, disciplined environment. Charter schools are publicly financed schools that are independently run, free from the same restrictions that govern district-run schools. Yet Gompers, despite its successes, hasn’t been able to keep pace with No Child Left Behind’s steep requirements, and is once again in Program Improvement. Mann Middle School divided into three smaller schools, which subsequently have slid back into Program Improvement as well.

As goals escalate, few schools will dodge that label, said Edward Caballero, administrator of the district’s Parent, Community and Student Engagement Office. The finicky standards of No Child Left Behind have already pulled generally high-achieving schools into Program Improvement, frustrating parents, principals and teachers, who complain that the blanket label tars all schools equally, regardless of their actual test scores. If a single segment of students misses goals, even by a tiny margin, a school is slapped with the sanction.

Consequently, a high-scoring school such as Dana Middle School shares the same label as the struggling Mann schools. Low-scoring schools that don’t receive federal money for low-income students escape the labels, because the law is hitched to federal funds. Fifty-four out of 221 San Diego Unified schools are currently in Program Improvement, including four charter schools, and 14 more will fall into Program Improvement if they fall short of state goals this year.

“To me, the label has become meaningless,” said Scott Machas, a parent at Pershing Middle School, a San Carlos school where test scores have nearly reached the state goal of 800. Yet his school is in Program Improvement. “We’ve gotten past it. It just gives a false impression of the school.”

Pershing, for example, had apparently failed progress goals earlier this year, pushing it deeper into Program Improvement, because not enough disabled students earned proficient scores on state tests. But after combing through student data, district staffers found that more students should have been included in the disabled category, said Deputy Superintendent Geno Flores.

The error arose both from students not being identified as disabled for testing data, and from students no longer being considered disabled — such as those who have overcome dyslexia — but could still be considered as disabled students for testing purposes two years after exiting the program, under the law.

By counting those students as disabled, Pershing’s scores for disabled students were bumped higher, meaning the school made enough progress, and would stop advancing in Program Improvement. Districtwide, reclassifying only 1,351 students as disabled helped San Diego Unified make the state’s standard in 2007 — a major coup for the school district of more than 132,000 students, which is the sole large urban district in California to earn that distinction.

School staffers heralded the switch in a press conference Wednesday at Pershing, but cautioned that clearing the rising bar of No Child Left Behind will grow tougher as expectations rise, and budgets dive. Reshuffling students from one category to another is unlikely to spare the district from the rapidly escalating demands of No Child Left Behind, or from a pummeling by state budget cuts. San Diego Unified expects to lose nearly $80 million in state funds next year from its $1.3 billion budget, with no recovery expected in years to follow.

“We’re supposed to reach perfection by 2014,” said Katherine Nakamura, president of the San Diego Unified school board. “That doesn’t just happen. It’s a tough road to hoe. And it’s tremendously important as we’re facing the budget crisis.”

States set their own timetables for reaching the high standard required by No Child Left Behind. California delayed putting big demands on schools until 2008. Between 2001 and 2007, goals crept up slowly, jumping only 10.8 percent over six years.

Caballero attributed the late-rising standards to California lawmakers resisting No Child Left Behind. The hope was that federal legislators would squelch the law before schools had to grapple with higher targets, Caballero said. That never happened, and now schools are faced with a staggering gauntlet of testing goals, each year more severe than the next.

Yet at Baker Elementary, Johnson is hopeful. She speaks excitedly about her school: about the germination of a new school-wide choir, despite Baker’s lack of a music teacher; about a parent liaison who hosts “Muffins with Moms” and “Donuts with Dads” to keep parents up to speed on school issues.

“I believe it’s an attainable goal,” she said. “It’s just a matter of us knowing our kids. Targeting our instruction. Getting rid of programs that aren’t research-based, that aren’t doing us any good. … If push comes to shove, we know what to do.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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