Wednesday, January 03, 2007

I love stories like this, LXXXII

Actually, I feel more ambivalent about this story than about the large majority of the government-funded compulsory-attendance matriculation center stories I post here. On the one hand I feel wickedly gleeful about the weak insufficiency of the excuses offered by school administrators for their schools' poor performance on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) tests. On the other hand I'm opposed to the national No Child Left Behind Act that led states to agree to administer these tests.

But on The Gripping Hand (thank you Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) you gotta love the creativity of the administrators trying to get their schools' "grades" changed. From the story in the Dallas Morning News:
None actually claimed a dog ate their homework.

But the Texas schools that appealed their subpar state ratings this year offered up a remarkable variety of explanations and excuses – some sensible, others more notable for their creativity.

Schools blamed their performance on everything from an errant fire alarm to a student going into labor – and, in one case, parent sabotage.

"There are certainly some appeals that we think have very little merit," said Criss Cloudt, the associate commissioner for accountability at the Texas Education Agency (TEA). "But we look at each one closely."

In all, 160 schools or districts appealed their ratings this year – a fraction of the more than 9,000 ratings TEA hands out annually. The agency approved 62 appeals, often moving a school one rung up the ratings ladder: unacceptable, acceptable, recognized and exemplary. The Dallas Morning News obtained copies of each district's appeals letter and the agency's yea-or-nay response.

One school wanted to re-assign the ethnicity of "several" black children who passed the tests to Hispanic so that it could earn a higher rating.

Another wanted to eliminate the score of one student "was exhibiting violent behavior" and who brought the average down just enough to slide the entire school's rating into the next lower category.

Then there was this:
At Jane Long Middle School in Bryan, a fire alarm went off during the social studies TAKS exam. Bryan officials argued that the alarm had distracted the school's black students, whose scores had fallen short of the acceptable bar.

Remember the phrase, "the soft bigotry of low expectations" that President Bush has used so often? It's a favorite of James Taranto and it led to a comment on that last paragraph in yesterday's "Best of the Web Today":
We'd love to hear the explanation for why the alarm distracted only black students.

And how about that case of parental sabotage?
Perhaps the most extreme one-student appeal came in Rio Vista ISD, near Cleburne. A fourth-grader who consistently got good grades had answered "A" to every multiple-choice question on a practice TAKS test. According to school officials, the student's parents had encouraged the child to sabotage the TAKS.

"My mom says [the principal] and the school are rewarded for doing well on the TAKS test and they shouldn't be rewarded because they haven't done a good job," the child told a teacher. According to the appeal, that student was the difference between acceptable and recognized.

My uneasiness about high-stakes testing twangs loudly on reading:
Esparza Elementary School fell short of recognized status because one too many low-income students failed the science test.

The district argued that one of those failing students shouldn't have been considered poor because the student's father had gotten a new job that paid more. The district even sent the father's pay schedules to TEA in an attempt to have its rating boosted. TEA didn't bite.

What is not explained in the article is what happens to those schools that fall in the standings. So I went to the TEA web site to find out more (emphasis mine):
Under the accountability provisions in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, all public school campuses, school districts, and the state are evaluated for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Districts, campuses, and the state are required to meet AYP criteria on three measures: Reading/Language Arts, Mathematics, and either Graduation Rate (for high schools and districts) or Attendance Rate (for elementary and middle/junior high schools).

If a campus, district, or state that is receiving Title I, Part A funds fails to meet AYP for two consecutive years, that campus, district, or state is subject to certain requirements such as offering supplemental education services, offering school choice, and/or taking corrective actions.

School choice, eh? No wonder school administrators fight so hard to get under-performing schools' ratings changed. School choice is anathema to the unions.

NCLB is a voluntary program. That is, if a state wishes to get its slice of the federal pie it has to toe the line and meet federal standards. Of course, a number of states, led by Wisconsin, filed suit to get relief from some of the federal requirements. I commented about this in April of last year. The suit was filed after states found out that the cost to comply with the requirements was greater than the amount they'd receive from the NCLB. Some interesting insights into this conflict can be found here.

So, if the state and local school districts want federal funding, they have to follow federal rules. I'm for rejecting federal funding on those grounds, not accepting the federal swag and then trying to get the rules changed through law suits.

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