Built to Fail

The federal No Child Left Behind law is threatening to wreck public education in Minnesota and elsewhere. That's what it was designed to do.

By almost any measure, Edina boasts one of the finest public school systems in the country. Even average eighth-grade students in the district post test scores that rank among the top 20 percent in the nation. Ninety-one percent of the graduates go on to college. The district is run by Dr. Ken Dragseth, who was named National Superintendent of the Year in 2003 by the American Association of School Administrators.

No wonder a community survey revealed that schools are the number one reason people choose to live in Edina.

So it was quite a surprise last year when Dragseth received a call from Minnesota Commissioner of Education Cheri Pierson Yecke, informing him that Edina had been put on the state list of schools that had failed to make "adequate yearly progress" under the terms of the federal No Child Left Behind law. The reason? State records showed that three of the 53 students categorized as "Asian/Pacific Islander" in the Edina system had not taken the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments test, putting that subgroup below the 95 percent participation level required by nclb. As it turned out, the three students had taken the test--bureaucratic error was appealed in time to remove Edina from the failure list. But Dragseth is still rankled by the experience.

"We have 7,200 kids in our district. The reality is, if just a few kids in a certain subgroup don't show up for the test, the whole district can be classified as failing and put under restriction," he says. "That's just asinine. I tell this to parents and they say it can't be so, but it is. I'm an old math teacher and statistician, and I know when I've been had."

Edina got off easily compared to Franklin Elementary School in Rochester. Last year, Franklin also exceeded the proficiency standards set up by the state in compliance with NCLB. However, the school initially determined that only 59 of the 63 students in the "free or reduced lunch" subgroup had taken the reading assessment, putting it below the required 95 percent participation rate. Later it was learned that a sixtieth student had been tested, enabling Franklin to exceed the threshold. But because the school did not file an appeal within 30 days pointing out the error, Yecke's Department of Education not only kept it on the list of schools that have failed to make "AYP" under NCLB, but, solely on the basis of this inaccurate information, gave Franklin a shoddy two-star rating in both reading and math on the state report cards required by NCLB as a means of publicizing school performance. Fifty other schools who failed just one of either the math or reading assessments were likewise downgraded on the report card in both subjects.

In its report evaluating NCLB's impact on Minnesota's public schools, released just two weeks ago, the state's Office of the Legislative Auditor recommended that Yecke's department not penalize schools for results subsequently shown to be false. Yecke's response, delivered in a recent letter to the auditor, can be translated through the jargon as no dice. Claiming there are "multiple opportunities to correct school and district data prior to finalizing AYP status," the commissioner wrote that if the original error came from the school district and the 30-day appeal period has ended, the penalties will stand.

There are significant consequences in Yecke's petty decision to emphasize bureaucratic procedure over credible test results. As the auditor's report points out, putting schools and districts on a failure list can have a negative effect "on parents' perceptions of schools (and their enrollment decisions), on the morale of school staff, and on the NCLB sanctions to which schools are subject." But the experiences of Edina and Franklin Elementary are but one small byproduct of legislative actions and bureaucratic decisions related to NCLB that will surely discredit, and are likely to bankrupt and dismantle, our public education system.

Under the terms of NCLB, which President Bush has called "the cornerstone of my administration," all of the nation's public school students must be tested in reading and math every year in grades three through eight, and at least once in grades ten through twelve. Any school receiving federal Title I money (ostensibly earmarked to improve the performance of disadvantaged students) faces increasingly harsh sanctions if its test scores fail to meet state-defined standards for making adequate yearly progress. After two years of AYP failure, the school must offer students the option of transferring to another public school in the district and bear the cost of transportation. After three years, the school must also offer low-income students tutorial services through a public or private agency approved by the state. After four years, the school district must take corrective actions such as removing personnel or changing the curriculum in the school. And after five years, the district is obliged to blow up, or "restructure," the school by replacing most or all of its staff or by turning over operations, as the U.S. Department of Education puts it, "to either the state or to a private company with a demonstrated record of effectiveness."

With reasonable guidelines and adequate funding, this timetable might have been a prudent course of education reform. But as the first sanctions are just now begininng to kick in, people across the country are belatedly discovering that NCLB is being structured and implemented as a punitive assault on public education, designed to throw the system into turmoil and open the door to privatization.

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