Schools left behind

Two failing marks out of 45 possible does not a failure make, say school officials, but the Bush administration disagrees

Students at Reno High School mill around during the lunch period.

Students at Reno High School mill around during the lunch period.

Photo By David Robert

Kathy Flanigan was known as Kathy Piretto in high school. She attended Reno High School at a time when Reno’s population was more stable and long-time families were more familiar. Reno High was known as the crown jewel of local schools—so much so that some who attended it were thought of as a bit insufferable on the subject. This week, Flanigan, now a bank mortgage loan officer, heard that Reno High has been ranked a failure under the federal “No Child Left Behind” act (NCLB).

“It’s surprising and disappointing,” she said. “It makes me ask how it compares to the other schools in our area.”

Her reaction is what school officials are hoping for—a desire for more information. She is not, at least, assuming that this judgment in Washington trumps what is happening in Washoe County.

But sorting out what is true and what is not isn’t easy, since NCLB is so politically charged in this presidential election year. It is the principal contribution of the Bush administration to education, so Bush supporters have a stake in defending it and Bush critics in tearing it down.

One Nevada group, Communities for Quality Education (CQE), has used the failing grade given to the high-profile Reno High as a launching pad for a broader attack on NCLB. The group, which is associated with the state teachers’ union, contrasted the school’s long record of excellence with what it describes as the federal law’s dubious approach to education.

Reno High was placed on a federal “watch list” because it failed to make the grade in two of 45 target goals mandated by NCLB. Both involved special education: (1) Less than 95 percent of the school’s special-ed students were tested, and (2) those who did take the test did not perform up to federal mandates.

While Reno High’s failing grade helps make NCLB critics’ point that the law is flawed, it doesn’t make a good example of the law’s other failings. For example, the law has been criticized because it may set schools attended by lower-income students up for an exodus because parents of students at schools that “fail"—even the dubious kind of failure experienced by Reno High—in consecutive years can opt out and have their children bused to schools in other neighborhoods at school district expense.

It’s hard to imagine many parents doing so in the case of Reno High, which remains a prestige school in spite of the federal ranking.

“They have received national attention for their excellence in preparing students for college, but the Bush administration says, ‘We’ve got our eye on you, and you better make sure you hit your test scores or it’s going to get worse',” said Dan Geary, spokesperson for CQE. “Simply ridiculous. … This means that schools, rather than working to prepare kids for the real world, will re-focus to an overriding mission no matter what else happens—pass the test, pass the test, pass the test.”

Geary is not saying his group necessarily wants NCLB repealed outright, but does “want to have a public dialogue on the state of public education in general and the NCLB in particular. The law is underfunded and overarching.”

Washoe County School District spokesperson Steve Mulvenon says it’s academic, anyway, since there’s no real prospect of repeal of NCLB.

“By all indications, this law is here to stay,” Mulvenon said. “There are some minor changes we’d like to see. For example, changing the ‘labeling’ categories to better describe what the school’s shortcomings are. Second, there ought to be recognition that English-language learners need three to five years to become proficient in English and their test scores should not be counted until then. Finally, there ought to be a re-examination of how students with disabilities are tested. Now, only the lowest performing 1 percent are exempted. All others take the same tests.”

Geary and Mulvenon are both troubled by the way a school can be branded with a negative label even when its failings—as in the case of Reno High—are in a very small number of the 45 target goals. This can hold a school’s reputation hostage even when the school is actually accomplishing great things. Mulvenon says he understands the strategy of forcing schools to pull their weight in all categories at the same time to make sure it brings all groups along, and the passage of time will tell whether it works.

“NCLB does not consider degrees of success or failure; it’s all or nothing. A school must meet 100 percent of its achievement targets to stay off of the watch list or the ‘needs improvement’ list.”

That negative terminology can confuse parents, Mulvenon said, even while forcing schools to focus on where improvement is most needed.

Once on the watch list, Geary said, the pressure on students and schools to prepare for the next round of testing becomes greater, causing still more “teaching to the test” and pulling them further away from real schooling.

“Anyone who has spent time in school knows there is a vast difference between preparing for life by really learning the course of study and cramming to pass a test,” he said.

One issue that gets little attention in debates over the federal role in education is whether the money coming from federal taxes is worth the trouble to local school districts. The reason the Washoe County School District must comply with NCLB in the first place is that Nevada has accepted federal dollars.

But Nevada gets few such dollars—the percentage of the state education budget coming from the U.S. government is normally in single digits, low single digits (though some non-education funding, such as child nutrition, is also used to enforce federal school goals). Most of the money for state schools comes from Nevada tax sources, yet Nevada and county officials find their own policies overridden by rules written 2,000 miles away by people who don’t have to live with the local consequences of those rules.

A comparison should be made between the benefit from the federal money and the detriment of the program at the next legislative session, said Geary.

“I think that local school boards, municipal and county governments should also take a hard look at the impact this has on communities,” he continued. “But the level of intrusion into our state’s priorities on education, as well as re-focusing students and teachers on passing a test no matter what, is very high.”

Mulvenon says the percentage of federal money may be small but its impact is large.

“The amount we get from the feds in categorical dollars is huge,” he said, “$15 million for NCLB alone and millions more for special ed and the federal lunch program.”

While former Reno High student Flanigan wants more information before deciding what the federal ranking means, Mulvenon worries that some people will take the federal findings with their negative labels and read more into them than is actually there.