City schools grapple with ‘No Child’ rules

Her blank face looked up, confused: No, fourth-grader Amarilis Villa said, she did not know what No Child Left Behind meant. She did not know that her school, Hill Central Music Academy, had been labeled “in need of improvement” under that federal law for four consecutive years.

Villa knew only that she had to take the biannual Connecticut Mastery Test, a statewide assessment used in elementary and middle schools to determine compliance with No Child Left Behind. It was a tough test, she said, and a lot was at stake.

“If you don’t do well, if we don’t try our best on them, you have to stay back,” said Villa.

Starting this year, Villa and her classmates will take the Connecticut Mastery Test every year, instead of every other year, to meet a federal mandate. For Villa, the additional tests are a burden. For Connecticut, they are the subject of the first state lawsuit ever to challenge No Child Left Behind, a 2001 law aimed at improving student performance and closing achievement gaps. Supported by the Bush administration, No Child Left Behind marks the broadest federal intervention in public education in recent years. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, who filed the suit last month, argues that Washington is not reimbursing the state for the cost of annual testing, even though No Child Left Behind specifically prohibits unfunded mandates.

The U.S. Department of Education has repeatedly denied that Connecticut is receiving inadequate funding.

“This is a sad day for students of Connecticut,” a Department of Education spokeswoman said in an April statement after Blumenthal announced his intentions. “Instead of addressing the issue at hand, the state has chosen to attack a law that is designed to assist the students most in need — and those whom these funds directly help.”

On its surface, the Connecticut lawsuit is about money. But in New Haven, the suit has rekindled a larger debate about the merits of No Child Left Behind.

New Haven Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo said in an April news conference that he supports the lawsuit “100 percent.” The state now gives the Connecticut Mastery Test in grades 4, 6 and 8, but No Child Left Behind requires that, beginning this year, the test also be given to grades 3, 5 and 7. Connecticut claims it will have to pay $50 million over the next several years for the additional tests, although Washington disputes that figure. At the April conference, Mayo called No Child Left Behind “a mandate that continues to raise the bar without funding.”

But Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo, communications director for New Haven public schools, said money was not Mayo’s only reason for supporting the suit.

“He overall thinks that No Child Left Behind has laudable goals, but it’s too narrowly focused on just test scores,” Sullivan-DeCarlo said. “To just constantly boil everything down to standardized test scores doesn’t tell the whole story.”

According to the law, students at each school must make a certain amount of progress every year on the Connecticut Mastery Test, which assesses reading, writing and math skills. This August, the state announced that five New Haven elementary and middle schools had not made adequate progress in both reading and math in the past year. Eleven other city schools were cited for deficiencies in one or more areas of the test.

Sullivan-DeCarlo said Washington should consider other factors in determining how well students are learning. Indicators could include student participation in science fairs, scores on state foreign language exams and community involvement, she said. She also finds fault with No Child Left Behind’s requirement that districts identify schools “in need of improvement.” Schools receive this label if their test scores do not meet federal standards for two consecutive years.

“We know that all our schools are trying very hard,” Sullivan-DeCarlo said. “To be put on a list — it’s just a stigma I’m not sure is helpful.”

Villa’s school, Hill Central Music Academy, which teaches pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, has been on the list for four years. If students do not score highly enough on the Connecticut Mastery Test this year, the school might be closed, said Assistant Principal Glen Worthy. If that happens, the students will be sent to another school, Worthy said. Hill Central would eventually reopen with a new staff, perhaps under the auspices of a private organization.

“Obviously our goal is to be off this list,” Worthy said. “The central office is saying, ‘You guys gotta work harder, you gotta get your scores up.’”

Hill Central faces several obstacles. For one, the school admits students throughout the year, even in June, Principal Roy Araujo said. He suggested that progress is difficult with a transient student population.

Also 20 percent of Hill Central students have been in the country less than 30 months and are learning English as a second language, Worthy said. No Child Left Behind demands that students who have lived in the United States for just one year take the Connecticut Mastery Test, which assesses English reading and writing skills.

“It’s an impossible task to think that in two years somebody is going to be reading at grade level in a different language,” said Alan Gibbons DIV ’95, a Hill Central teacher who coordinates testing and helps out in bilingual classrooms. “The law penalizes the English language learners, and I believe it leads them to frustration.”

Gibbons identified a third concern: the Connecticut Mastery Tests reflects a student’s performance under stress on one particular day, he said. The student’s score may not reflect his or her true capabilities.

“Can you imagine a fourth grader? I mean, you don’t do well on this test and you’re going to summer school,” Gibbons said.

New Haven teachers and administrators are quick to identify No Child Left Behind’s shortcomings, but they acknowledge the law has some merit.

Over a year ago, the New Haven school system launched a strategic road map that shares some goals and methods with No Child Left Behind. The plan, called “Kids First 2008: Growing from Good to Great,” relies partly on data collection to improve student performance. One of the program’s goals is to help 95 percent of New Haven school children achieve math and literacy standards by 2008. No Child Left Behind mandates that 100 percent of public school students nationwide achieve those standards by 2014. Sullivan-Decarlo said district officials set an earlier deadline because they felt “a sense of urgency.”

“I don’t think we’re far off from the intent of No Child Left Behind, which is to bring all students up to par,” she said.

Sullivan-DeCarlo reiterated her concern that the law does not fund its own mandates, and it focuses too much on one test. But she acknowledged that No Child Left Behind partly motivated the city to launch Kids First 2008, which she so far deems a success.

As part of Kids First 2008, the superintendent’s office is encouraging all city schools to post student test scores on school walls for public knowledge. City schools are also expected to hold weekly meetings, where each grade’s teachers can discuss individual student progress.

“We’re really trying to focus more on data, so that you know where your students are at any point in time,” Sullivan-DeCarlo said.

Data charts pepper the hallway walls at Hill Central, where Gibbons said students take regular district-wide assessments, in addition to the Connecticut Mastery Test. One poster lists every fifth grader’s score on a district-wide reading test, using numbers instead of names to protect privacy. Another poster displays pie charts that reflect students’ scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test.

Worthy sees value in collecting data, but said he does not think the Connecticut Mastery Test should be given every year. If the state loses the lawsuit, it would have to spend money on additional tests that would be better directed at teacher training or curriculum development, he said. But even if Washington ends up paying for the tests, he said, the annual assessments might be a little too much for students.

Still, Worthy said, the data posters and the grade-level meetings, prompted in part by No Child Left Behind, are positive steps.

“[The meetings and data] made us look at ourselves and how we teach, and see the children as individuals and work on their strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “In years past, we were really shooting in the dark. Now we’re really focused.”

Alan Gibbons DIV ’95 points to a data wall in Hill Central Music Academy. The walls are part of a recent city-wide focus on collecting and assessing test scores to improve student performance.
Sophie Perl
Alan Gibbons DIV ’95 points to a data wall in Hill Central Music Academy. The walls are part of a recent city-wide focus on collecting and assessing test scores to improve student performance.

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