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Cover Story

Cover Story: Standardized Students


April 14, 2005

Is Uncle Sam pushing kids to their potential or punishing hard-working schools?

By Carolyn Szczepanski

In 31 years of teaching, Linda Nelson never felt so ashamed as when Uncle Sam labeled her students as “failing.”


In 2003, Nelson was teaching at Carter Lake Elementary in Council Bluffs – a school where 76 percent of the students received free or reduced lunch – and the stigma of falling short of requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act fell squarely on her shoulders. Carter Lake’s fourth-graders didn’t meet the math standards dictated by the federal government and, as one of the fourth-grade teachers, Nelson felt responsible.

“All you’re working toward is not having the shame or embarrassment of the community or school being on the list of failing schools,” the teacher says. “We felt terrible shame, like we’d failed these kids and the community.”

With her students publicly labeled as deficient, and Carter Lake placed on the Schools in Need of Assistance (SINA) list, Nelson says she was quick to zero in on the lacking math skills, and, for months, took time out of other subjects to make sure her kids would measure up to the math standards, even if it subtracted from other aspects of their education.

“In the end we got off the watch list,” Nelson says, “but our reading scores dropped. And I’m so glad our social studies and science scores didn’t count that year, because they probably wouldn’t have made the adequate threshold in those subjects either, because we had taken so much time out of those classes. So, in the end, I do think our kids were better off in math. But at what expense?”

As students across the Des Moines School District sit down to take standardized tests this week and education officials near the end of the third school year under the regulations of the No Child Left Behind Act, educators continue to ask that very question: is Uncle Sam holding teachers accountable and advancing the achievement of every child, or is the law setting rigid, unrealistic goals that penalize schools which are doing their best with limited resources and diverse student bodies?

Even in Iowa, educators have deeply held and divergent opinions on the landmark legislation. Ask Tim Berger, a sixth-grade teacher at Moulton Elementary, what he thinks, and he’ll tell you NCLB rightly makes teachers accountable for their students’ scores. But pose the same question to Maggie McGill, principal at Des Moines’ Wallace Elementary, and she’ll lament that judging her kids on the basis of one test is only a narrow snapshot of their abilities.

But one thing everyone – both proponents and critics of the law -agrees upon is that, as No Child Left Behind marches forward, the stakes are rising. For schools that have been on the SINA list for several years, like Des Moines’ Moulton Elementary, the tests students take this week will determine if the school will be subject to the next, more stringent phase of federal sanctions next year. And even for the schools making the grade, next year ushers in a new tide of requirements that, most education officials acknowledge, will push many more schools onto the “failing” list.

Give Tamra Saltzman-Moss some pom-poms and the Des Moines mother would be the ideal cheerleader for Moulton Elementary. With seven kids, she’s already watched four of them graduate from the extended learning center and, with three now spending their days in the brick building tucked between Seventh and Eighth Streets just north of downtown, she has full faith that they too will get everything they need to advance academically. But even Saltzman-Moss says she wasn’t the slightest bit surprised when she received the first of three letters informing her that, according to Uncle Sam, the school is failing her children.

The problem is, when compared to the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, Moulton is leaving plenty of children lagging behind the national standards. Even Saltzman-Moss acknowledges their scores are disheartening: according to Principal Al Burrows, only 36 percent of the fourth-graders were up to grade level in math and less than 39 percent were up to speed in reading when they took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills last year. That’s barely half the number of proficient students required by federal and state law last year.

So, having failed to make “Yearly Adequate Progress,” federal sanctions have spurred some changes at Moulton. Being on the SINA list means that, in the first year, an improvement plan must be developed by teachers and administrators and approved by the state. The second year, parents are given the option of sending their children to another district school and, the third year, the school must offer “supplemental services,” like after-school tutoring, to all students. It isn’t until the fourth year that the penalties get more drastic: removing faculty, extending the school day or year, implementing a new curriculum or decreasing the authority of local administrators.

In Iowa, 66 schools were placed on the SINA list for the current academic year, but only Title 1 schools – those that receive extra financial assistance because they have high proportions of low-income students – are subject to federal sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act. In Des Moines, 22 schools are currently aided by the $63 million in Title 1 funding allotted to the state, and three of those – Moulton Elementary, Edmunds Fine Arts Academy and Wallace Elementary – are facing federal sanctions for not living up to the national testing demands of NCLB.

But only three schools in the state are in their third year of federal scrutiny, facing the more dramatic penalties should they fail to raise their scores this year. One of them is Moulton.

Kathi Slaughter, spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Education, is quick to point out that holding schools accountable for annual improvement isn’t new to the state of Iowa. For years, state law has required schools to show consistent increases in achievement level. The difference now, Slaughter says, is that NCLB takes a more threatening approach to spurring steady progress.

“The federal law is similar, but it operates on a penalty kind of philosophy,” Slaughter says. “We don’t have that in Iowa. It’s also created a paperwork burden – where sometimes teachers and administrators have to fill out two different kinds of reports – and, because there are penalties attached if you don’t reach a certain level of proficiency, it’s created more stress at the local level.”

Nelson, now the president of the Iowa State Education Association, knows firsthand that schools from Council Bluffs to the Quad Cities are feeling that stress.

“I’ve been to 104 school districts since the beginning of the school year,” she says, “and everywhere teachers are drowning in paperwork. As the year moves forward, so many teachers are feeling powerless, feeling like they can’t keep their heads above water.”

And it’s the most diverse schools that are most likely to be swept onto the list of unsatisfactory schools. According to NCLB, each school has to account for a number of subcategories – African American kids, special education students, free- and reduced-lunch recipients, to name a few – and, if even one subcategory has too many kids scoring below national standards, that school will be tagged for improvement. So it’s not surprising, Des Moines School Board member Ako Abdul-Samad notes, that it’s not the affluent, suburban schools with homogenous student bodies and few subcategories, but the more diverse, urban schools with a number of subcategories that end up on the SINA list. Judi Cunningham, executive director of Elementary, Early Childhood and Middle School for DMPS, says that logic certainly holds true in Des Moines; the schools on the SINA list are also the most diverse in the district.

Staring down the prospect of more dramatic federal sanctions should they fail to raise their scores this year, one might expect Moulton Elementary to be in a state of emergency. But, while some teachers do admit to a culture of exhaustion, frustration and stress, the man at the helm, Principal Burrows, has brought an undeniable air of confidence and drive since he transferred from Oak Park Elementary this year. The district says he wasn’t transferred specifically to confront the subpar scores, and Burrows himself doesn’t like the stigma of being labeled a “failing school,” but he also embraces the rigors of the No Child Left Behind Act. So does sixth-grade teacher Tim Berger.

“When teachers looked at ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) scores before we were identified (as SINA) we did realize that, ‘Boy, we need to do something.'” Berger says. “I don’t think any teacher could go into education and be happy with the scores we had, so we were seeing that something needed to be changed. We certainly don’t want to be a SINA school, but it’s given us the ability to develop as better teachers.”

That staff development is one of the first provisions when a school is identified as SINA. At Moulton, teachers get guidance from a new math study team, they meet for in-service days and, poring over journal articles and research papers, discuss how rigorously tested strategies can be applied in their classrooms. They have “Road map” packets laying out the best way to pace their students’ math progress, they mark charts and spreadsheets to keep track of each specific objective, and even Burrows can barely keep up with the staggering number of acronyms flying around the building. Whether it’s the race to satisfy the feds or the drive of the new principal, the way Moulton teachers operate is undoubtedly different than before, says Dean of Students Julie Halbur. Three years after the school landed on the SINA list and fewer than 10 months since Burrows brought his research-focused method to Moulton, the fundamental principle driving every teacher can be summed up in one word: data.

“Every decision we make,” Burrows says matter-of-factly, “the more data-driven, the better.”

And, at least according to the 12-week assessments Burrows requires, those meticulous decisions are working. Take the sixth grade. In May 2004, only 44 percent of the students were reading at grade level. But after just five months of research-driven teaching and “probes,” 57 percent of that same class was reading proficiently. With such results showing marked progress, Burrows believes his students and staff aren’t stressed about the tests this week; they’re excited.

But even if the data-driven model sparks a meteoric rise in test scores, Moulton is far from in the clear. Even if the kids eat their research-based snacks (mints are proven to spark brain activity) and heed the research-based rubric for good test taking (which each teacher will show on an overhead projector just before the test), administrators know even a stellar performance this week won’t meet Uncle Sam’s standards. Instead, what Burrows is hoping for is a 10 percent jump in achievement. That would be enough for a “safe harbor” exception, which would forestall the next set of sanctions from taking effect at Moulton.

“My feeling is that, if we don’t make it, you can’t slight any of the work that we’ve done,” Burrows says. “With the work we’re doing and continuing into next year, we’ll see the results. I don’t worry about the sanctions. I don’t think that’s what makes me do my job.”

Despite his confidence, however, Burrows also understands that any gain, no matter how dramatic, is temporary. As Cunningham points out, the No Child Left Behind act is progressive. Each year more students are tested. Each year more subjects are added. And each year more students need to be making the grade in those subjects. So while a school like Moulton continues to race forward, the federal law keeps moving the finish line.

“We have trend lines and can plot where Moulton is in relation to that trend,” Cunningham says of the rising standards. “And, looking at that, they have a lot of work to do.”

Darnell Moss Jr. had never been the kind of kid who bounded out the door to get to school. Saltzman-Moss says her third-grade son had little enthusiasm for class and, when he wasn’t doing well in math and was invited to attend an extra week of intense teaching during spring break, she had to entice his participation by sending her first-grade daughter with him. But, thanks to that “SINA Week,” his early hesitance has given way to a new excitement.

“It really changed his mindset for that week and that carried over,” Saltzman-Moss says of the extra math help. “Now he’s up and ready to go to school, and if everyone else isn’t ready he’ll even ask to walk to school. That’s been a really positive change in him.”

In many ways, the SINA designation has spurred plenty of positive changes at Moulton. As Berger points out, that label has released financial resources to do the kind of professional development and academic programs, like the spring break “SINA Week,” that they know will help their students. But those financial resources, many worry, could soon become significantly diluted as more schools join Moulton on the SINA list.

As the years tick toward the 2014 proficiency deadline, the provisions of NCLB will continue to expand. For instance, next year all children in grades three through eight – rather than just the fourth- and eighth-grade students, who are currently tested – will have their results counted against schools’ yearly progress. Then, starting in 2007-2008, the subjects tested will include science and social studies, along with the current math and reading assessments.

And that spells trouble, some education officials say. Not only will more kids be taking more tests, but the number of those kids that have to perform well will increase, as well. By 2014, 100 percent of students will be expected to meet the test score targets, and each state has the authority to decide how much improvement their schools must show each year to get to that benchmark. With reading, for instance, Iowa decided schools must have 70 percent of their fourth-graders at the standard this year, 76 percent starting in 2008, 82 percent beginning in 2011 and jump quickly to 88 and 94 percent in the final two years before the 2014 deadline. But even though the state has tried to take a measured approach, Cunningham says, such rapid growth means that some children will be expected to learn not just one year’s worth of material, but make 1.4 years of progress in a single school year.

So with the testing criteria increasing, many education officials predict the number of schools on the SINA list will inevitably balloon, stretching the financial and staffing resources available to struggling schools. Maggie McGill, principal at Wallace Elementary, expects to have more company on the list very soon.

“If the scores rise, which we expect them to, the pressure will not be off,” she says of this week’s test results. “We’re just one of the first schools. Will there be more schools? You bet. And it’s won’t be because teachers aren’t doing their jobs; it’s that the measures are getting so stringent.”

So far, Cunningham says, Des Moines has been lucky. For the past several years the number of SINA schools has stayed below a dozen, allowing the district to concentrate resources on struggling schools. For example, Longfellow Elementary was the first local school designated as deficient in math, Cunningham says, and the district responded by assigning their math curriculum supervisor, their math coordinator and the best professional development expert from the University of Northern Iowa.

“We pumped all those things into the school, and Longfellow did get off,” she says.

But as more SINA schools line up at the spigot, the resources of that pump will have to be rationed. Abdul-Samad worries that the SINA designation “pits schools against schools, administrators against administrators, teachers against teachers, instead of bringing them together.” Paul Cahill, the Title 1 consultant for the Iowa Department of Education, says that competition may become more common.

“If you have a district with one school on the list, it’s easier to focus time and attention and funding on that,” he says. “And, at state level, out of the Title 1 allocation, we’re able to set aside a small amount to work with SINA schools. But as the numbers increase, those funds don’t increase, and we’ll have less funds to spread over more schools. And for the local district, it’s one thing if you have one school on the list, but if you have 25 on there, who do you focus on first?”

In fact, Cahill continues, if you look forward a few years – when 82 or 88 percent of students need to be proficient – even schools that seem to be excelling will be on the improvement list.

“The further out we go, people may start scratching their heads, because schools that have a great percentage of proficient students will still be on the list,” he says. “It’s going to be a struggle for everybody.”

As it stands now, being one of only three Title 1 schools on the local SINA list, Moulton has reaped significant financial resources to help their students grow. Last year they received $60,000, and this year that aid got bumped up to $95,000 for professional development and extra academic services. That money pays for the extra hours the math study team puts in and the materials they use. It will pay for teachers to meet with a math consultant over the summer and create quizzes and assessments. That “SINA Week” that got Darnell Moss Jr. excited about school for the first time? That was funded out of that $95,000, too.

But, down the road, Cahill says that, even as it gets harder to stay off the list, schools that can’t shake their SINA designation will not only be competing with more schools for extra funding, but will also face cuts in their baseline Title 1 funds. That funding-cut penalty is where even Burrows’ support of No Child Left Behind is tested.

“That’s the part that doesn’t make sense,” he says. “I tend not to think about it; it just doesn’t make sense. To me, I think we should be making public schools stronger, not making schools in need of more services weaker. But I have faith that part of the law will be changed eventually, when people realize what it means.”

Every single day, Maggie McGill watches helplessly as the outside struggles of her students’ impact their best efforts in the classroom.

“Two years ago we had a child who was taking the ITBS,” the Wallace Elementary principal recalls, “and before he came to school that morning he watched his father get arrested for dealing drugs. You tell me: do you think that affected his achievement that day? We see that kind of thing everyday, everyday.”

But there’s no place on the standardized tests to account for the critical life events that are beyond the control of the teachers. So the narrow focus on test results, many say, leaves an incomplete picture of a school’s overall success.

“Some teachers have certain kids with so many issues at home they’re happy to see them with a C,” Slaughter, spokesperson for the IDE, explains. “And they have to think, ‘You there in Washington don’t know how lucky we are, how much progress we’ve made that Suzy is here day after day getting a C.’ But the legislators are basically saying, ‘We don’t care. We want everyone to get a B, no matter what.” It’s like they’re saying ‘We want every fourth-grader to be 5 feet tall.’ It doesn’t matter if they’ll be 5 feet in fifth grade; they just picked a height. They simply say every child needs to be this tall, or you’re in need of assistance.”

If nothing else, three decades of teaching have taught Nelson, president of ISEA, that every child learns at a different rate, processing information in unique ways. You can “drill and kill” the concept of Roman numerals with a child all through fourth grade, she says, but it might not be until his grandma buys him a watch in fifth grade that the concept finally clicks. No Child Left Behind, however, leaves no room for such individual evolution, she says. McGill agrees.

“I think that all of us in education want children to be successful learners,” McGill says, “but when you place decisions on the results of only one test, given once during the year, that makes that test very high stakes and provides a very narrow snapshot of what that child’s skills are. Unfortunately, with this legislation our children’s academic achievement is decided with that one test.”

And, Slaughter points out, children are even more volatile than adults; whether or not their friend talked to them can have a huge impact on their performance on any given day. In talking with students, Nelson has come to have the same concerns.

“When I’ve had the chance to visit with middle school and high school students, some have told me they just fill in dots to make it look like a Christmas tree,” she says. “And I tell them, ‘Do you know your whole 10th-grade year, your whole school district is judged by the one week’s effort you put into this testing? You’ve been in school 180 days, and all that is judged on that one week.’ Not all kids have the maturity level to understand that.”

So test taking has become a much larger priority over the past several years. When he meets with Moulton students every two weeks, Burrows inevitably stresses how important the tests are; he even uses his teachers as pawns to physically show his students how the achievement gap is created over years of not taking tests seriously. At Wallace Elementary, McGill says her students certainly understand the gravity of the tests; they even make colorful posters reminding themselves of “ITBS Tips,” like getting a good night’s sleep before the test, that are posted all along the hallways.

And while some parents might prickle at the notion of educators “teaching to a test,” Saltzman-Moss sees the value in taking the time to instruct children in how to approach a test, whether it’s eating a good meal that morning or being able to identify answers that are clearly incorrect.

“I don’t think they did that in the past,” she says of Moulton. “With my 18-year-old, I remember I had to sit down with him and teach him how to take a test, and, once I did that, his scores improved so much.”

But will improvement happen fast enough to keep pace with No Child Left Behind? Probably not, many say. If lawmakers are expecting 100 percent of students to be up to national standards by 2014, officials forecast the feds will likely be disappointed.

“You know, I woke up this morning and said I want everyone in Des Moines to be a millionaire by 2014,” Adbul-Samad says sarcastically. “I wanted the young man and young lady under a bridge, along with everybody else, to be a millionaire. It’s the most ridiculous goal that anybody can set. If anyone believes we can reach (100 percent) by utilizing the methods that are under-funding our schools today, it’s ridiculous. It’s unrealistic.”

With schools struggling to fund improvement programs, Slaughter tends to agree. Even Burrows says a more realistic goal would be 94, maybe 96 percent, of students scoring at required levels.

“It’s a very good-sounding policy,” Nelson says. “We want no student to fail, we want no child to be left behind, but the reality of putting together the actual expectations of the law just aren’t reasonable. No one is saying it’s realistic.”

But the reality of federal expectations remains in the back of countless educators’ minds as their students take the standardized tests this week. And while Burrows, whose school could face new penalties if Moulton’s status remains unchanged after the current tests, says he’s not thinking about the sanctions, McGill, whose school is on the list for only the first year, however is already concerned about what could come if Wallace doesn’t toe the federal line.

“They tell us that after three years on the SINA list there will be severe repercussions,” she says carefully. “They never mentioned what those repercussions could be; I can only imagine.” CV

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