Anchorage Daily News: Schools labeled as 'failing' too quickly

Alaskans know that the No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB, has shortcomings. One major fault is a one-size-fits-all accountability system on schools that are vastly different from one another. As a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, I'm working to fix the law while still giving parents and communities solid information to help schools improve. Until that process is complete though, let's all be honest about how our schools are really doing. It's not as bleak as some media portray. 

When students bring home their report cards, very few have gotten 100 percent on every assignment. Even fewer get a perfect score on their SATs. But we do not call those students "failures." Just as a parent wouldn't call a "C" an "F" or ground their kids for improving from a "D" to a "C," we need to give schools credit for what they are doing right as we focus on where they need to improve. 

Why, then, do some apply the label "failing school" to schools that don't quite make Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, under NCLB? Either a school makes AYP or it is a School in Need of Improvement -- not a "failure." Labeling schools as failures when that's not true is unfair and harmful. 

Soon, the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development will announce which schools made AYP and which did not. When we discuss those results, we need to be precise. I challenge Alaska's media to report the data without using the phrase "failing school" unless it's really justified. 

To make AYP this year, Alaskan schools must succeed in each of 31 ways. This year, the state determined that 83 percent of the students classified into each of ten different groups must be proficient in reading and writing. Then, nearly 75 percent of the students in each of those ten groups must be proficient in math. In addition, 95 percent of the students in each of those groups must show up for the three days of statewide testing. Finally, the school as a whole must meet either the required attendance or graduation rate. NCLB does give some credit for progress, but making AYP is tough. 

Government Hill Elementary School, where my boys first went to school, missed AYP for the first time in the 2002-03 school year. I was involved with the PTA at that time, so I know the label was not because we didn't meet the educational standards -- we met all of those. Instead, we missed making AYP because three students from one subgroup didn't attend school on test day. We met 97 percent of the requirements, but were labeled a "failing school." 

The same demoralizing effect has been seen in schools across Alaska that just barely miss making AYP in one or two categories, and in schools that have made terrific strides to improve but haven't reached the required level of proficiency. Just imagine being called a "failure" year after year when it isn't true. Think about what that does to a school's and a community's morale. 

By the grading system we're all familiar with, where 50 percent or below is failing, a school would have to miss AYP in 16 of the 31 categories to get an F. Missing in 9 categories would earn a C, while missing in just 6 would earn a B in most grade books in America. 

Is there room for a school to improve if fewer than 83 percent of students read on grade level, or fewer than 75 percent can do their math? Absolutely. If a high school has a low graduation rate, should it do better? Of course. But don't apply labels that are inaccurate and misleading. Instead, give credit where credit is due. And, if some schools are not making the grade for some students, point it out, find out why, and talk about what needs to be done. 

Remember what every high school English student knows -- it's easy to pin on a Scarlet Letter, but harder to find the one who deserves it. 

Lisa Murkowski has been a U.S. Senator since 2002.



Source: By: Lisa Murkowski. Originally Published on August 11, 2011