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Test for Students' Parents

September 11, 2004

American parents think public schools in general are a mess -- but their own children's schools are fine. How is this finding, in one poll after another, possible? It might be because parents want to feel that they're doing right by their offspring, or that, up close, they see beyond gloomy news reports to their school's special programs, the teachers' extra efforts and their children's progress.

Similarly, people at first thought the No Child Left Behind Act was the perfect way to hold schools accountable. It would get all those other bad schools to shape up by giving them a failing grade based on standardized test scores. They never imagined that their school would be listed as one of those "other" ones. Yet a third of California's schools are listed as failing -- even though many of them have good or rising scores. Under No Child Left Behind, parents may demand a transfer from a failing school to a supposedly better one, but they're often full of doubt about making a switch.

The federal act's rules are often arcane and sometimes daffy. The flood of mind-numbing statistics with such labels as API and AYP can be useful for administrative types, baring weak spots and showing overall school trends. They're limited in measuring the true worth of a school. There are many reasons a school might be listed as failing, some more valid than others.

In California, 44% of failing high schools were listed solely because not enough students of every demographic group took all the tests, no matter how well they scored. Oxnard's high schools made huge gains but also made the failure list because, of 46 areas measured, the schools fell one-tenth of one percentage point short of the test-taking goal for one group, special-education students taking the language arts test.

Parents have to be the judges, and they have to look mainly at whether their schools work for their children. It's quite possible for a student to transfer out of a "failing" school only to land in a worse one.

There are schools that do a lackluster job and rightly belong on the failure list. On many failing California campuses last school year, black students weren't making expected progress in math. That might not make the school bad, but it should at least raise parental eyebrows. Involved parents can see when their children are stuck in a school that grooms them for failure. That's where No Child Left Behind is of real use, giving them a chance to get out of a hopeless situation.

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