The Learning Curve

What happens when good schools get a failing grade?

On July 1, 2002, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige announced that more than 8,600 public schools nationwide were failing to meet state standards. Park View Montessori, an elementary school that educates some of Minneapolis's poorest kids, was on the list. Most of the 275 students at Park View come from north Minneapolis; 75 percent are eligible for free or subsidized lunch; 70 percent are African American.

Relatively speaking, the failing grade was not extraordinary. Park View was one of 79 Minnesota schools on Paige's radar, and one of 31 in Minneapolis. According to school-district officials, however, Park View has been unfairly designated. If anything, they say, the school should be lauded for the strides it has made with a difficult student population.

Indeed, it seems the methodology that's been used to evaluate Park View is flawed, and the school has been unfairly labeled. While this label will not have a direct impact on Park View's day-to-day operations, school-district officials say it will wrongly tarnish the school's name. Reputation is particularly important in Minnesota because students are free to attend the school of their choice, regardless of location. Joy Blanchard, principal of Park View, says that when considering where to send their children, many parents automatically cross off schools that have been deemed problematic. "It takes a long time to get rid of that black eye, earned or unearned," Blanchard says.

In spring 2001, Park View students took the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test. In August, the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning notified the school that its fifth-grade students had not shown "adequate yearly progress" in mathematics and that it was "needing improvement" in that part of the curriculum. That designation alone was enough to put Park View on Paige's list of failing schools.

What the test didn't factor in was that the student population at Park View changed significantly during the period that was evaluated. Of the 28 fifth graders enrolled in 2000-01, 15 had attended the third grade somewhere else. In other words, the Department of Children, Families and Learning was judging two different sets of kids. "What you had was a school that had a dramatic change in the configuration of students that they received," explains Rick Spicuzza, assistant director for research, evaluation, and assessment with the Minneapolis Public Schools.

The 13 students who were enrolled at Park View continuously from third grade to fifth grade improved their math scores at a rate twice that of the district average. What's more, according to the Minneapolis Public Schools' 2001 Measuring Up report, Park View's overall performance, especially considering the demographic makeup of its student body, has been commendable. The school was given a rating of 2.8 on a 5-point scale, which puts it right in the middle of the pack in Minneapolis. The assessment takes into account 33 different variables, ranging from student safety to test results. (Spicuzza says that the 2002 report is not yet complete, but he believes Park View's ranking will jump to over 3.) The school also received two awards from the school district in recent years for student achievement. "This school has made great strides from where they were," Spicuzza maintains.

Bob Wedl, who prior to retiring in June was the school district's executive director for planning and policy, says the conflicting reports create confusion among parents. "We just told Park View what a great job they're doing, and now the state is saying they're a failing school," Wedl laments. "So the parents are saying, 'Which one is it?'"

Parents are notoriously conservative when it comes to their own children's education. Few are willing to take a chance on a school that the state has labeled troubled, no matter how many awards it has received. "The downside is reputation," argues Spicuzza. "Once identified, does it become a self-fulfilling prophecy?"

Park View's parents are not alone in their confusion. Lyndale Community School received a 3.8 score in last year's Measuring Up report--well above the district average--and was held up as a model for educating poor children and children of color. Yet the state put Lyndale on its list of failing schools because of low reading scores.

Last October, the school district appealed to the state, arguing that the students at Park View who had actually stayed at the school from third to fifth grade were making significant academic progress. Christine Jax, commissioner of the Department of Children, Families and Learning, rejected this argument. In a letter to Minneapolis Superintendent Carol Johnson, Jax argued that testing needs to reflect the entire student body, not merely those students who have been continuously enrolled. She also dismissed the school's contention that the turnover rate for students at Park View was abnormally high.

Minneapolis school board member Dennis Schapiro pooh-poohs the state's verdict. "It's the old government thing: You have rules that are enforced to the letter but not to the spirit," he says.

Disagreements over the validity and value of standardized tests are nothing new, but the debate is intensifying. Until now, only public schools that received Title I funding from the federal government were required to meet statewide testing standards. In January, however, President Bush pushed through an education package requiring all public schools to meet state standards; if a school fails two years in a row, students will have the option of transferring to another school, with the state government picking up the tab for transportation. (Earlier this month, USA Today reported that 19 schools that had been heralded as "blue ribbon" schools by the federal government were at the same time deemed "failing" because they did not meet state testing standards.)

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