That Make The Grade
No Child Left Behind? That’s the goal, but how does your local high school really measure up? We’ve got the data — and lots of it — so that you can learn for yourself where your school stands
By Rita Ross
Photo Michael Polito
The latest report card from the controversial national education program No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is out — and the grades look promising for several Valley public schools.
While the state as a whole still needs to ramp up its progress in meeting the demanding, performance-driven federal standards of NCLB — the U.S. Department of Education ranks New York as second only to California in the number of schools rated “chronically troubled” under the NCLB law — there’s good news, too. At the same time, a record number of New York schools (1,658 public schools, 14 charter schools and 288 public school districts) earned a “High Performing/Gap Closing” rating this year — including 16 regional high schools (see starred schools in chart at right).
These schools were applauded for meeting state standards for English and math in the 2005-2006 school year; they also made what NCLB labels “Adequate Yearly Progress” in those subjects for two years in a row.
State Education Commissioner Richard Mills calls it a “positive sign” of progress in adhering to the requirements of NCLB’s national accountability legislation — a law that has caused schools to scramble to revise curriculums and triggered a flood of debate across the nation.
Ever since NCLB became law in 2002, administrators, teachers and students have been under the gun to perform up to the law’s rigorous standards or face the consequences — ultimately, schools can face total restructuring of staff and curriculum or, in a worst-case scenario, even be closed down.
Many who give a big thumbs-down to NCLB say it reduces education to the bare-bones, rote skills needed to achieve passable federal test scores, eliminating the love of learning for learning’s sake and replacing it with an anxiety-ridden, regimented, goal-oriented approach.
Some say the current NCLB structure is also unfair to the brightest students, who face boredom in school because so much emphasis is placed on drills to bring underachievers up to par.
Yet many principals, parents and teachers — including those clamoring to have NCLB permanently revoked — agree that at least one aim of NCLB â€“ to level the playing field and raise underserved kids and lower-performing students up to higher accomplishment — is undeniably an admirable goal.
So what’s the magic formula that helps a school manage to navigate through the maze of NCLB mandates to earn a rating of “High Performing,” yet keep students and faculty enthusiastic about learning?
Mahopac High School
“Over the past six years, Mahopac High School has been following a plan of constant change and improvement to meet the needs of the 21st-century child,” Principal Aaron Trummer says of the school, which has more than 1,600 students and a faculty that surpasses 125.
Key to that vision is a rigorous, expanding curriculum. “For instance, seven years ago, we offered five Advanced Placement programs; now we have 18 AP courses,” he notes. The school also provides two dual-credit programs featuring 14 courses in which students can receive both high school and college credit in partnership with the University of Albany, Marist College, and Syracuse University.
Trummer says a third innovation involves alternatives for kids who thrive in a nontraditional educational setting. “It’s been a great experience creating alternative education and seeing the positive results.”
One innovative program is known as mastery learning. Here, credit isn’t based solely on the amount of time it takes a student to master a subject and take a regimented test. “Rather, it focuses on their own drive and motivation,” Trummer explains. “The state says we have 180 days a year to teach something, but not all kids learn according to the calendar.” The kids are tested at least three times yearly but can proceed more or less at their own learning pace.
Mahopac High also offers special support for that scary transition ninth-graders make when they first enter the big, bad world of high school. “Here at Mahopac, we consider the ninth grade a â€˜learning community’ where kids get social as well as academic support.”
Trummer says the biggest challenge for today’s teachers is “to communicate and motivate effectively. It’s a tough question: How do we get children to embrace excellence?” The education that kids get in schools nowadays is just a small component of their daily input, he adds. “With the Internet, iPods, videos and all, it’s not about just giving them information anymore. Kids are bombarded by information. It’s also about teaching kids how to learn to learn.”
When it comes to No Child Left Behind, Trummer says its emphasis on rote testing leaves a lot to be desired. “We’re morphing from education programs in this country that, in the past, supported inquiry and understanding, to becoming a â€˜mediocrity’ — by the very definition of standardized testing.”
He adds: “NCLB could be a decent starting point. Not a finishing point. We can’t quantify learning.” He adds, “Yes, there’s a depressing part about what’s going on, but we don’t want to embrace just the â€˜dark side’ of NCLB. In fact, this is a very exciting time for education.”
Mike Mahoney, science chairperson at Mahopac High School, also teaches ninth- through 12th-grade science. Several years ago he started an Early Advanced Placement program in science at the school.
“It came out of the philosophy of wanting to engage the elite kids,” Mahoney says. “I saw that even some honors students needed more challenge.” Students can take the AP course in environmental studies and Regents biology, combined in one class, starting as early as ninth grade.
“One concern we had was that kids would be overtaxed,” says Mahoney. “We do ask a lot of them. But many kids were pleased with the program, and in fact, continued taking science throughout high school.”
Mahopac High has a similar combined AP program in chemistry plus Regents chemistry for 10th-graders. “They really turn up their jets in class,” says Mahoney. “Some kids leave high school with 32 credits in college-level science. It was a risk to try the program, but it’s been quite successful.”
Kids who don’t thrive in traditional English classes are finding a great fit in Mahopac’s alternative program. “We’re in the same school building, so it’s not really an alternative high school. Some students also take regular classes and go back and forth,” says Eileen Clements, who teaches ninth- to 12th-grade English in Mahopac’s New Directions program.
“It’s a mixed bag of students, which makes the program so interesting,” she says, noting that some kids have learning disabilities and others are dealing with emotional issues. “Some have a chaotic home situation. It all affects their grades, so they’re receiving additional support.”
The New Directions daily schedule even starts at 10 a.m., compared to 7:30 for the rest of the school. “That’s important for these kids,” Clements notes. “It allows some of them access to a BOCES program first thing in the morning, then they come here.” The school day at New Directions also lasts an hour longer, providing extra quiet time for homework or remedial projects.
Thirteen students from New Directions graduated in June. “Some were fifth-year high school students. One graduated early. We’re very proud of them,” says Clements. “Kids sometimes get painted with a broad brush. They can be branded troublemakers or think they’re not smart. We help them break the mold.”
Parents of New Directions students also rave about the program. Angela Mulroy’s daughter, Elizabeth, 18, graduated from the Mahopac High program in June. “Elizabeth had a learning disability,” explains Angela. “She needed assistance in preparing for and taking tests, and had some challenges with paying attention.”
Elizabeth started in New Directions four years ago, realizing that a smaller class, flexible schedule and individual attention from teachers would be beneficial, says Angela. “I can’t stress enough the teachers’ dedication to these students.
“Elizabeth said to me, â€˜If it wasn’t for New Directions, I wouldn’t be graduating.’ ” She’s now bound for college at SUNY Delhi, where she plans to study to become a veterinary technician.
Ellenville High School
“Our goal here is to create a learning community that celebrates teaching and learning,” says Ellenville High School Principal Ron Chiasson.
Something must be working because, he says, even faculty meetings are fun. “We encourage every department to report on what they’re proud of. Teachers actually say they love faculty meetings; that it’s helped bring back enthusiasm,” according to Chiasson.
“And the enthusiasm is trickling down to the students,” he adds. “There’s been an increase in attendance and a decrease in discipline referrals. That’s been our push — to celebrate success.”
Faculty teamwork is a key component of the school’s achievement, Chiasson says of the school, which has about 560 students.
For instance, English teachers might decide that many students need improvement in creating an introductory paragraph in their writing. “First, the teachers will look at the stats — perhaps 50 percent of the kids did well on this, but we’d like to see it rise to 80 percent. Then the teachers brainstorm and come up with teaching strategies. They might have seven or eight possibilities. They’ll agree on say, two, and for the next three weeks, all the teachers try it. Then they test the kids again, look at the results and fine-tune it. If it still doesn’t work, we try something else. It’s ongoing.”
And Ellenville High’s administration is up-front about letting teachers know details about the school’s progress. “Next school year, we’ll post the changing data on bulletin boards for the faculty to compare. Schools have lots and lots of data, but the key is to use it well,” Chiasson feels.
Special programs at Ellenville High include after-school help sessions with teachers in subjects including social studies, English, math, English as a second language, and special ed. “With our program called Another Way, kids can come after school for one or two hours, or a part of that time, and get tutoring help. We’ll even bus them home afterward,” Chiasson says.
Ellenville High also encourages what’s known as instructional technology. Chiasson explains: “Educators have to face the fact that a lot of kids aren’t reading books, but they certainly are reading computer screens. Kids are on the Web a lot of the time, so teachers are creating Web sites where students can participate in various subjects. Technology can be a helpful tool for teachers.”
When it comes to NCLB assessments, Chiasson comments, “Sure, everybody looks at test results. But it’s not all about the tests. We want to keep seeing growth and improvement in our students.”
What makes for the best school experience? “When kids are engaged and fired up to be involved in learning. And it’s not just one thing for everyone. What engages Joe might not engage Susie, so we use a variety of strategies,” he says.
“That’s the task of today’s teacher, the challenge teachers face — that kids don’t all learn the same way. Teachers are sort of like conductors of a symphony orchestra, combining all those different talents into one harmony.”
Suffern High School
A successful school has several key components, according to Patrick Faherty, principal of Suffern High School. “They include having supportive parents and a supportive board of education, and getting the go-ahead to hire the best teachers possible,” he says.
His faculty also uses “a lot of data analysis. We look at things like Regents scores. And we talk with teachers to find out what motivates the kids.”
Faherty says another strong point about Suffern High — it has over 1,500 students in grades nine to 12 — is its extensive offerings of Advanced Placement programs.
“In 2000, we offered 14 AP exams and 199 tests were written (some kids take multiple AP tests). By 2007, we had 23 AP courses and 718 tests were written — and 95 percent
of the AP students go to college.”
He adds: “We also encourage tests like the PSAT, and computer study tools like AP Potential, which anyone can access on-line.”
What factors indicate that a school is doing a good job? “Parents can look at several standard factors: the percentage of kids who go on to college, the Regents rate, average SAT scores. Tests like these are valuable for parents if, say, they’re considering moving to a new area and want to evaluate a school.”
He notes what he considers the strengths of the No Child Left Behind program. “The accountability part and guaranteed curriculum of NCLB is good. The question, â€˜What is my child learning?’ can be measured for parents and taxpayers.
“In Suffern High, our top students were already doing well before the new testing. Many were taking the AP and baccalaureate programs — the two most vigorous programs. But the stretch has been for the average-to-below-average kids.”
Faherty says schools need to work harder with the students who sometimes teeter precariously on the edge of failing, starting as early as possible.
“NCLB has helped the lower-achieving student. It used to be that there were essentially two curriculums in some schools. Some kids would graduate who shouldn’t have. The major change has been to raise the bar, to take underachieving students to the next level. Now there’s a core of study for all, and everyone takes the Regents.
“It’s more competitive than ever to get into college,” Faherty adds. “The stakes are higher and it’s important to â€˜package’ our kids, in the sense of preparing them for it. And we’re finding that if you raise expectations for the kids, they’ll rise to it.”
He says the goal at Suffern High is to “always keep reaching, to go from good to great. You can’t be complacent and rest on your laurels. You always have to move higher.”
Stats and Stuff
We’ve given you a whole lot of numbers to digest here. So what do they all mean?
Well, they can certainly give you a snapshot of some of the strengths and weaknesses of your school. Many studies indicate that economic and educational prosperity go hand in hand, so we used census data on median household income in each school’s zip code to place districts in order according to wealth. But money is only part of the larger picture. Many less-affluent districts show exceptional academic achievement, and many richer ones do not. Besides, however you interpret them, statistics can’t capture the full range of factors that determine a school’s success, and we caution readers about taking these numbers too literally.
That said, our data comes from four sources: the 2006 edition of the New York State Department of Education’s Report to the Governor and the Legislature on the Educational Status of the State’s Schools; www.schoolmatters.com, a Web site — run by Standard and Poor’s — that collects and analyzes data in order to provide district-by-district, school-by-school information on public education; community demographics from the 2000 Census; and data received directly from the schools themselves.
What Is “No Child Left Behind?”
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is the updated version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the basic
NCLB went into effect in January 2002. The 1,100-page law is essentially a series of federal programs that aim to boost primary and secondary school performance by increasing accountability standards in all 50 states, school districts, and individual schools. It’s an extension of previous programs using the theory of standards-based (formerly outcome-based) education, which is predicated on the assumption that students will succeed if they are given set goals and expectations are high for them.
The act requires: That by the end of the 2006-2007 school year, all teachers must be “highly qualified” according to the law’s definition.
u All students must be tested yearly in math and reading in grades three through eight, plus once in high school. By the end of the 2007-08 school year, science tests will also be given once in grades , six to nine, and 10 and 11.
u By the year 2014, all students must be up to grade-level proficiency in math and English.
u Schools must use “scientifically based research” in the classroom and for staff development.
u Parents can take their children out of schools deemed under the law as needing improvement and can place them in other schools.
Schools can lose federal funding if they don’t release complete scores or if low scores don’t improve; after a certain period, low-performing schools must be restructured.
NCLB: Pros and Cons
Supporters say NCLB encourages accountability in public schools and spurs kids to do better in school; helps close the achievement gap, especially for minorities and students with learning disabilities; and gives parents more options for their childrens’ education, among other pluses.
Indeed, some results have been impressive. A 2005 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 43 states and Washington, D.C. either improved or remained constant in scores for math and reading by fourth- and eighth-graders. Data also shows that there has been more progress by nine-year-olds in reading during the past five years than in the previous 28 years combined.
But opposition to NCLB has been vehement and vocal. Opponents say that a key problem is that, although the required reforms are now in place, the federal government has failed to fully fund the act, and many already-strained school district budgets can’t handle the burden themselves.
Another big gripe is the focus on standardized tests. Many educators argue that these don’t measure learning as much as they do the student’s ability to cram their brains with a narrow range of knowledge that’s just enough to squeak by with a passing test score.
There’s also less freedom for teachers, who spend more time “teaching for the test” so kids will pass, rather than encouraging creative inquiry.
Still another criticism is that, since NCLB is results-driven, and a school’s student test scores essentially determine its fate, some schools, districts and states have an incentive to manipulate the way they assess and interpret results. Each state can create its own standardized tests, and some have lowered their standards by making tests easier. As a result, critics say these artificially higher scores suggest that their kids are doing well in school, when they really aren’t.
Likewise, schools that give challenging tests might indeed be offering a better education, but could be setting themselves up for failure if not enough kids pass, according to NCLB standards. Some teachers say the brightest students aren’t getting course work that’s challenging enough because of what’s been described as the “watered-down” approach of NCLB.
And with so much emphasis on English and math, some educators complain that other subjects, ranging from science to foreign languages to social studies, are getting short shrift.
These are just some of the emotional arguments for and against NCLB, which is up for possible federal reauthorization this year. Legislation is already being introduced to do everything from patch up the law to completely overhaul it. So far, the National Education Association has backed no less than 51 bills already introduced in Congress to revise NCLB — especially to give states more flexibility and to reduce control over schools by the act’s strict requirements.
A new version of NCLB is expected to pass by year’s end; otherwise the current law remains in force, at least until a new administration comes to power in Washington.
Calling All Capital Region Techies…
Heading off to high school for the first time is always a heady experience, but imagine the excitement for 40 Capital Region ninth-graders who will christen the brand-new Tech Valley High School in North Greenbush next month. A joint venture of Questar III and Capital Region BOCES, the new school — the first public high school to focus on technology in New York State — is the culmination of several years of planning by local education leaders. (Strong support from local businesses, not to mention a $400,000 donation from Bill and Melinda Gates’ New Technology Foundation, also helped to get the ball rolling.) This is by no means your conventional high school: Tech Valley will serve students from as many as 48 school districts and promises an innovative, hands-on approach to education. And by working with local technology businesses and