Schools struggle to meet benchmarks

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Posted: Saturday, October 12, 2013 12:00 am

With Congress locked in a shutdown stalemate, perhaps it is unsurprising lawmakers have a long to-do list beyond funding the federal government.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law that funds public schools at the federal level, is supposed to be reauthorized every five years. However, the last time the law has been updated was 2001 — 12 years ago, making it seven years without a reauthorization — as President George Bush’s signature education reforms, the No Child Left Behind Act.

No Child Left Behind was built around the idea of using accountability measures, including students’ performance on standardized tests, and ratcheting up how well schools are expected to perform to meet Adequate Yearly Progress goals. Schools that don’t perform well enough to meet AYP benchmarks are labeled as “In Need Of Improvement” and, if improvement isn’t indicated by performance benchmarks, the school could face restructuring or penalties.

For example, schools receiving federal Title I support to help with concentrations of low-income children that fail to improve over five years face options like replacing all or most of the staff or bringing in an outside agency to run the school. Nebraska doesn’t allow state take-overs or charter schools, two other options available in other states.

This year, Nebraska public schools were required to achieve 80 percent to 90 percent proficiency on state tests for all student groups, including racial groups, those students receiving federal free or reduced lunches, special education students and English language learners.

Three Nebraska schools – two in Lincoln and Indian Hill Elementary School in South Omaha – have finally hit that five-year mark of needing improvement and are facing restructuring.

But as the standards have increased without modification at the federal level, many Sarpy County schools, and many schools across the state, have failed to hit the standards as well.

In fact, two-thirds of the state’s public schools now need improvement, according to No Child Left Behind. In the Nebraska State of the Schools report released Sept. 27, 87 schools joined the list to bring it to 286 schools needing improvement.

Educators say it’s the result of unreasonable academic targets built into the law, which max out this year. Millard Superintendent Keith Lutz called the spiraling list of schools “crazy,” but he said educators warned this would happen as the targets rose.

“This isn’t anything new that we didn’t tell them in 2001,” Lutz said.

The Nebraska Department of Education described the classifications as broken and called on Congress to revisit No Child Left Behind. Scott Swisher, Nebraska’s deputy education commissioner, said educators are wasting time on compliance.

“Do your job, Congress, and get this thing fixed,” he said.

Until that happens, though, schools will continue to be classified according to the requirements of federal law. Many schools are listed as needing improvement, and some are also included on the state’s Persistently Lowest Achieving Schools list.

New on the improvement list this year in Papillion-La Vista are Portal and Walnut Creek elementary schools. Remaining on the list are Carriage Hill and Tara Heights elementary schools and Papillion and La Vista junior high schools. Carriage Hill Elementary School also appears as a Tier III school on the PLAS list.

The complete State of the Schools Report – along with the complete PLAS list for the state and detailed explanations of the classifications – can be found on the Nebraska Department of Education’s website, education.ne.gov.

World-Herald News Service contributed to this report.

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