By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
California’s schools need relief from “inappropriate labels and ineffective interventions” that are a result of the federal No Child Left Behind law, according to state schools chief Tom Torlakson.
In a letter sent Thursday to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Torlakson said the program’s requirement that 100 percent of students reach proficiency by the 2013-14 school year means a rapidly escalating number of schools and districts are being deemed failures despite rising test scores and rankings according to the state’s formula.
California bases its scores on a “growth mode” under which students, schools and districts are judged by how much their scores increase over time.
The federal standards are based on all students meeting the same requirements at the same time, no matter where they scored when assessments began.
Under those federal rules, nearly 80 percent of eligible schools will fall into sanctions for the current school year when scores are released in the coming weeks, Torlakson predicted.
“Even more are expected to fail (to meet federal benchmarks) over the next few years as targets rise, and as such, the federally imposed labels cease to provide any meaningful information to stakeholders who deserve a more comprehensive understanding of a school’s performance,” Torlakson wrote.
Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington credited the controversial law with highlighting the needs of different subgroups of students, including English language learners and special education students, but called requirements that every single student reach proficiency at the same time “somewhat ridiculous.”
“That is not realistic,” he said.
Penalties when schools and districts fall into federal Program Improvement sanctions include offering additional academic support, allowing students to transfer to non-Program Improvement-labeled schools, and eventually staff changes or state takeover.
Torlakson contends that cash-strapped districts in California have limited ability to dedicate funds to intervention requirements. He called the requirements “huge burdens.”
In Santa Rosa City Schools, Sonoma County’s largest district, seven of the district’s 10 elementary schools are in Program Improvement. Two of the district’s five middle schools and two of five high schools, are also in some level of sanctions.
Letters are issued every year, alerting parents to their rights to move to a campus not in Program Improvement.
That process, and others already being undertaken by the district to improve student scores, will not stop despite Torlakson’s letter, according to Superintendent Sharon Liddell.
“Torlakson is asking Arne Duncan to give California a waiver,” she said. “Unless or until that officially happens, then we have to go ahead with things as they are.”
Few families choose to move campuses under No Child Left Behind provisions, according to Santa Rosa district officials.
Initial requests filed for the current school year show 41 elementary students have asked to move, as well as 22 middle schoolers and 47 high school students. Those numbers are expected to become final in the coming weeks.
School officials have long expressed frustration at what they call the unrealistic demands of the federal regulations and the message it sends to students, parents and teachers.
“One of the widely recognized problems with NCLB is the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to labeling schools that fail (federal) Adequate Yearly Progress, regardless of the reasons for the failure or whether the school fell short by a little or by a lot,” Torlakson wrote.
And the difference between a school deemed a failure under federal guidelines and a success in the eyes of the state can be perilously thin. Last spring, nine students’ dropout status proved the difference between Santa Rosa High’s being named a California Distinguished School and being deemed failing under the rules of the No Child Left Behind law.
School officials remedied a reporting error and the campus was awarded the Distinguished School honor.
Staff writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org.