No Child Left Behind tricky for L.A. schools

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The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, signed into law by President George W. Bush in early 2002, has evolved from a piece of legislation achieving bipartisan support into a law that some educators say produces unfair benchmarks that are next to impossible to meet.

The ultimate measure of school success and achievement under NCLB is what is known as Adequate Yearly Progress. The measures used to determine AYP vary from state to state.

In California, AYP is determined by examining the results of a number of tests for each school, including the California Standards Test, California Alternate Performance Assessment, the California High School Exit Exam and the Academic Performance Index.

API is a state-level measure of achievement in California, based on a 200 to 1000 point scale. Assessment of API is determined for each school by examining the results of the same tests that are looked at for AYP with the addition of the California Achievement Test.

In California, the Los Angeles Unified School District faces some challenges in meeting the requirements under the NCLB law partly as a result of high numbers of lower income students and large numbers of students learning English as a second language.

According to the California Department of Education, for 2004-2005, 539,906 students, or 72.8 percent, of the total LAUSD population were identified as Hispanic.

Additionally, there were 315,467 students in the LAUSD defined as “English Learners.” EL students are students who report a primary language other than English on the state-approved Home Language Survey.

On the basis of the state approved oral language (grades K-12) assessment procedures, including literacy (grades 3-12 only), EL students have been determined to lack the clearly defined English language skills of listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing necessary to succeed in regular instructional programs.

One local school facing such challenges is James Monroe High School in North Hills. The school, with a population of 4,600 students, of which 82 percent of students are Hispanic, failed to meet AYP standards in 2004 and 2005.

“Although we do not meet AYP, we’ve never gone in the wrong direction,” said Thane Opfell, assistant principal of James Monroe High School.

According to Opfell, Monroe shows the fifth largest improvement when looking not at AYP, but rather at the school’s API scores. Monroe’s API score went from 599 to 619 between 2004 and 2005, a 20-point increase, according to the California Department of Education.

While the API score is determined by looking at the results of the tests taken by students at each grade level, it was decided that in California, the scores of only 10th graders taking the California High School Exit Exam determine the AYP measure.

“It would be nice if they had more comprehensive inputs rather than just the results from 10th grade which determines our AYP,” Opfell said.

What worries Opfell most, he said, is that the bar is raised on the minimum AYP requirements year after year.

“We recognize the challenges we have here to move these children along,” Opfell said. “We’re proud of our kids here. They’re overcoming the challenges of poverty. A lot of them are working hard to learn a new language.”

Despite their best efforts, the seemingly unattainable AYP standards loom overhead.

Opfell provided the analogy of students receiving a pat on the back for their success on state exams, but then being kicked in the shins when it comes to federal standards.

Jeffrey Davis, principal of Chatsworth High School and part-time CSUN professor in education, shared a similar sentiment about English Learning and special education students.

“The rules aren’t really fair in dealing with those two populations,” Davis said. “The special education teachers are very frustrated.”

According to Davis, special education students can be anywhere between two and five years behind a grade level. Additionally, under NCLB, other students with learning disabilities are required to participate in regular math and English classes, Davis said.

Chatsworth High stands apart from Monroe High in that it met its AYP requirements for 2005 and achieved an API score of 689.

What could pose a problem for even the highest achieving schools not only in California but also all over the United States is the requirement of 100 percent proficiency for all students.

Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have provided extensive analysis and criticism of the NCLB law and its various components.

“The spirit of the law is something the AFT has always supported,” said Jaime Zapata, spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers.

“It is reasonable to assume that teachers as a group would favor specific laws that provide for improved standards of education and laws that aid in helping them provide the necessary tools to meet such standards,” Zapata said. “The problems arise when the measures of success are unrealistic.”

“The biggest complaint that teachers and educators have is with AYP,” Zapata said. “The problem with AYP is that it uses an inaccurate yardstick to measure progress.”

This poses a problem for schools that are improving but still cannot meet AYP, Zapata said. One-hundred percent proficiency is something that never happens; educational achievement follows a curve with students on both the high end and the low end, he said.

Zapata said a possible alternative measure to guarantee schools meet AYP targets is called a growth model approach, which would rate a school on how much value they have added to the performance of students over a period of time rather than basing success on set benchmarks.

Another area of concern that has brought up with regards to the NCLB law is the amount of funding provided for NCLB programs. According to Zapata, in looking at proposed funds for 2006, there is about a $9 billion dollar shortfall in funding.

“The people who wrote the law did so with a good intent to help children, but it hasn’t been funded adequately,” Zapata said. “Students do suffer if the necessary support is not provided. Funding is important because without that money, schools that need the most help are not getting it.”

Denise Cardinal, spokesperson for the National Education Association, expressed a similar sentiment.

“More often than not, when it comes time to write the checks, Congress tends to under fund, specifically when it comes to education,” Cardinal said.

Michael Salseda can be reached at michael.salseda@gmail.com.