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The 85% Solution

September 15, 2003

Don Juan Avila Middle School met all its targets for higher test scores this year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Yet, for the lack of a single student, the Aliso Viejo school is listed as failing to meet its goals.

If one more special-education student had taken the state's standardized math test, Don Juan Avila would have been a success story. The federal schools-accountability law requires 95% of all students in every subcategory -- and there are 10 of those, including racial or ethnic groups and children with language barriers -- to take the tests, and it imposes sanctions against schools that repeatedly fall short. Though Don Juan Avila missed the 95% in only one subgroup, in one subject, by one student, it's a total failure in the law's eyes.

You could think of Don Juan Avila as One School Left Behind, except for all the company it has. Of the 3,000-plus California schools that failed to meet their targets this year, one-third raised their test scores across the board just fine but were listed as failing because too few students took the test. The problem runs nationwide. In Georgia, a majority of the so-called failing schools lost out solely because they missed participation goals. The reasoning behind the goals is good. It would be all too easy for principals to encourage the parents of struggling students to take a family trip during test week, to give schools' scores a boost. But even the federal law's most ardent supporters, such as the nonprofit policy group Education Trust, say the 95% rule is too stiff. For one thing, parents of special-education students sometimes resist the exams. Their children often find a long, fill-in-the-bubbles test stressful and difficult to complete. And, parents of mentally disabled children say, the tests provide little useful information to them, telling them only that, as they already knew, their children are below grade level.

Absenteeism also affects the numbers. In classroom terms, if more than one student is absent from a 33-student class, it falls short of 95% attendance. That is hard to overcome, even with makeup tests. It is particularly a problem in poor neighborhoods where students may move unexpectedly or skip school without notice.

The Education Trust and state education officials suggest starting with a 90% or even an 85% participation rate, raising the bar as school officials devise ways of getting more students to take the tests. That small fix to the No Child Left Behind Act would make it fairer and more meaningful. Yet there is little political will in Washington. Republicans fear making President Bush look bad before the next election. California Rep. George Miller, a Democrat and a major force behind the original bill, said he wanted to observe the situation for a couple of years before making changes. That would be fair if he also put off the consequences for failure.

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