Ellen Thompson, age 8, from
Jacoby Creek School, poses for our cover with Scantron test scoring
Story & photos by HANK SIMS
Arturo Vásquez, superintendent of the Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified SchoolDistrict, makes no secret of his distaste for the Bush administration. [Vásquez in photo below]
Five minutes of small talk is all it takes for the 57-year-old school official, a child of immigrant farmworkers who rode a wrestling scholarship to a distinguished career in education, to launch into his critique of the Iraq war.
But sitting at his desk in the little district office behind Hoopa High last week, a few days after his schools received their results from the state's annual round of standardized tests, Vásquez saved his strongest venom for President Bush's controversial education legislation -- the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
"You know what No Child Left Behind is?" he asked. "No Child Left Behind is the government telling you that you have to get from Eureka to Hoopa in two hours. And then telling you you have to walk."
Vásquez's bitterness is undiminished by the fact that the Klamath-Trinity district's most troubled schools -- Hoopa High and Hoopa Elementary -- did exceptionally well on their 2003-04 tests compared to previous years. Scores at Hoopa Elementary, where all but three of the 323 students are classified as "socioeconomically disadvantaged," rose by 5 percent overall -- one of the biggest gains in the county, and more than enough for the school to make what No Child Left Behind calls "adequate yearly progress."
It was the first time in recent years that both Hoopa High and Hoopa Elementary cleared that hurdle. Despite the gains, though, both schools are still classified as "program improvement" schools, meaning that they are still subject to federal penalties under No Child Left Behind. The schools will have to meet No Child Left Behind's goals again this year in order to be dropped from the program improvement list.
It's not that Vásquez opposes standardized testing. Before he came to Klamath-Trinity four years ago he built his career on "accountability," the educational movement that held that schools should be measured and punished or rewarded on how well their students test. Accountability swept throughout the nation in the 1990s, after several state legislatures began to require it of their schools. As a consultant to the California Department of Education in that era, Vásquez worked with some of the most troubled districts in the state --Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland -- to help them improve their educational performance.
Even today, Vásquez lovingly pores over Klamath-Trinity's annual test results, taking satisfaction that he can diagnose precisely where he needs to direct his efforts -- to fifth grade math programs, maybe, or to literacy in grades seven through nine -- to ensure that students get what they need.
"It's like a doctor," he said last week. "You go to a doctor, they check your throat, they check your stomach. They figure out where you need the treatment."
But Vásquez, like many educators, believe that No Child Left Behind, with its ambiguous and ever-changing rules, its under-funded mandates, its zeal to punish schools that don't live up to its standards, may be doing more to harm troubled schools than help them.
"Accountability is what I'm about," Vásquez said. "It's what I'm trained to do. But has the government made its adequate yearly progress? I'd say no. Words are not enough."
The big stick
As the federal government's contribution to the accountability movement, No Child Left Behind seeks to impose educational standards on those schools that get money from the Title I program, a national fund meant to aid schools with a high population of "socioeconomically disadvantaged" students -- those who come from poor families, or ones where the parents did not graduate from high school.
"Program improvement" is a regimen of penalties intended to force schools to improve test scores. If a school doesn't achieve "annual yearly progress" -- a complex formula involving standardized test scores, graduation rate and other factors -- for two years in a row, it is placed on the program improvement list, and becomes subject to immediate penalties.
Every day, for instance, Klamath-Trinity buses Hoopa kids down to Trinity Valley Elementary in Willow Creek because parents whose children would otherwise attend a program improvement school have the option to send their children to a school with higher test scores. The district has to pick up the cost of the busing, spending money that could otherwise have gone into teacher training, materials, field trips -- things that could directly improve education in Hoopa.
"As it is, this district puts in more miles than probably 95 percent of the districts in the state," Vásquez said. "Do we get enough money for that? No."
The school winds up with fewer students and receives less money from the state.
All the while, Hoopa students must achieve better scores if their schools are to avoid even more severe punishment. If program improvement schools continue to fail to achieve yearly progress, they can be forced to restructure their school entirely by hiring all new staff, converting into a charter school or turning over control of the school to the state.
Poor overall test scores are not the only way a school can make it into the dreaded "program improvement" category. It only takes students from one grade to fail to meet expectations in one subject for the entire school to fail its annual yearly progress goals. In addition, "subgroups" of students -- those who qualify for free lunch programs, for example -- have to meet academic benchmarks.
Perhaps most worrisome to local educators is the mandated participation rate in testing. To make adequate yearly progress, a school must test 95 percent of its students in each grade, and for each subgroup, even though parents may withdraw their students from the testing process if they do not approve of standardized tests -- a not uncommon occurrence in Humboldt County. Several schools in Eureka nearly went into program improvement this year because not enough students took the tests.
"Almost all of those schools that didn't make it last year, they didn't make it because of participation rate," said Bob Munther, assistant superintendent for the Eureka City Unified School District. "We had schools that were 94.6 percent, 94.7 percent -- we thought, `Just round up!' But they didn't round up."
Despite their high test scores, two area charter schools -- Big Lagoon and Mattole Valley -- would be going into program improvement this year based on the fact that too many of their students opted out. Their saving grace is that they are among the few local schools that do not take Title I money, and so are exempt from No Child Left Behind requirements.
However, this year the act began to apply to entire districts, in addition to individual schools. So the Big Lagoon and Mattole districts -- which do receive Title I money to fund their other schools -- may have to answer for their charter schools' low testing rates.
But it's not just struggling schools that have had to work to keep up with the provisions of No Child Left Behind, especially in rural areas like much of Humboldt County.
Cheryl Ingham [in photo below] , program manager for school support and accountability at the Humboldt County Office of Education, said last week that small, under-funded districts require immense support in order to keep current on all the act's requirements.
"More and more, our little districts have to rely on me," Ingham said. "It's become so complicated that you're not going to have someone in-house to handle it."
Not all of these are related to test scores. For example, when it was passed the act required that schools move toward hiring "highly qualified teachers" -- though it neglected to specify what would make a teacher highly qualified. Districts scrambled to divine the government's intention on their own and to apply what it thought would be a reasonable standard to their own faculties. The government only recently clarified its intentions.
"It's taken a lot of staff time to look at each individual teacher and whether or not they meet each of these criteria," said Eureka Unified's Munther. "Now, two or three years later, after we put in umpteen hours" -- time that clearly could have been put to better use, he said -- "it looks like we're going to make it."
Susie Jennings, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction at the Southern Humboldt Joint Unified School District, said that it initially appeared that the highly qualified teacher requirement would cause her district a great deal of trouble. The regulations at first seemed to demand that a high school math teacher possess a degree in that subject. In small schools such as hers, where there is not a large enough student body for a full-time math professor, science teachers often teach math as well.
The government recently issued a clarification that would permit such an arrangement, but Jennings said that she still spends a significant amount of time making sure her school complies with this and other provisions of the act.
"There were a number of things in the law that made it extremely difficult for small rural high schools," she said. "Some of those things are getting cleared up a little bit."
Perhaps most of all, critics say the government has been unwilling to provide funding that would help schools to comply with the No Child Left Behind's requirements. Last spring, the National Conference of State Legislatures estimated that state and local governments would be spending $10 billion more than the federal government budgeted for the 2004-05 fiscal year in order to fund No Child Left Behind. Estimates of the total amount spent by state and local government since the act was passed run as high as $27 billion.
A taste of success
The accountability movement has its success stories. One of them is the Rio Dell Elementary School District, which back in 1999 did poorly on the first state standardized tests under California's Public School Accountability Act of 1999. Jeff Northern [in photo at right] , a former first grade teacher who today serves as principal of both Eagle Prairie Elementary and Monument Middle schools in Rio Dell, helped coordinate the turnaround.
Upon taking office, Northern met with district teachers and devised a plan to revamp the schools' curriculum so that it would match the state's educational standards for each grade, in each subject. He sought out new instructional materials to support the change. And he reorganized the district so that seventh and eighth graders would have their own campus.
Reviewing the results of last year's tests, released earlier in the month, Northern had every right to be pleased at the program's success. Both have scores better than the state average.
"I don't think we'll ever have the highest scores in Humboldt County, but we'll be up there," he said.
Northern credits early adoption of state standards as the key factor in turning Rio Dell Elementary's schools around. By the time No Child Left Behind came into effect, the district was already well on its way to improvement of its test scores. The head start has allowed the district to escape most of No Child Left Behind's punitive measures.
Still, Northern shares his colleagues' criticisms of the federal law. "They've set impossible goals," he said. "Eventually, it's going to crash."
The stated goal of No Child Left Behind is for every student at every school in the nation to be rated at or above "proficient" in basic subjects by the year 2014. Every year, more and more students in each school have to score above a certain level on the tests -- the broad definition of "adequate yearly progress" -- in order to avoid punishment. Currently, the baseline is relatively modest. But as it continues to rise, Northern imagines that even excellent schools may not measure up to the act's idealistic goals.
"It's a 15-year plan -- we're still in the early stages of it," he said. "It doesn't seem that significant now. It's not to the point where I'm terribly worried about it. But pretty soon, we'll all be in the same boat."
Some educators harbor a conspiracy theory that the No Child Left Behind Act was designed to fail schools. If enough public schools are deemed failures, the argument for school privatization, whether through vouchers or the whole-scale outsourcing of public education, is easier to make.
Then there are those who simply think that No Child Left Behind is a monumental mistake, or a piece of electioneering grandstanding, that will inevitably be scrapped when either it collapses under its own weight or a different administration comes to power.
In the meantime, people like Vásquez still must grapple with the act and take pride in their victories. Hoopa's good showing in last year's tests may have been despite No Child Left Behind, as Vásquez believes, and not because of it. Still, he says, his teachers have a new spring in their steps.
"People, when I got here, found the school to be hopeless," Vásquez said. "Now it's a different story. They've tasted success."
He only hopes that No Child Left Behind -- with its unforgiving quirks, unfunded mandates and subtle diversion of resources away from the classroom -- doesn't spoil it for them.
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.