Making schools responsible for progress could lead to student achievement boost

The state Board of Education’s decision two weeks ago to scrap its bilingual education policies left many civil rights groups and educators worried that children who are not fluent in English will be ignored.

But a state and national push to hold educators more accountable for student achievement could soon increase the pressure on schools to do a better job of educating poor and non-English-speaking students — two groups that have historically performed poorly.

Federal law now requires high-poverty schools to show academic progress from year to year. California is developing more rigorous academic standards and a test to determine whether students are meeting them. And state Sen.
Dede Alpert, D-San Diego, is sponsoring a bill requiring schools to demonstrate that students with limited English are learning.

“It’s all interwoven, and certainly when it comes to English-learners,
school districts are going to have to start taking a closer look at them,”
Alpert consultant Lisa Giroux said.

So far, the most sweeping changes affect Title I schools, the high-poverty campuses responsible for educating many of the students with limited English skills.

Congress revamped the Title I regulations in 1994, with a goal of making federal funding more dependent on student achievement. The new regulations require states to hold poor children to the same academic standards as all other students — not a radical notion, but one that had not taken hold in many high-poverty schools.

In California, that means that 90 percent of the students at Title I schools must be doing grade-level work within 10 years. Schools where student achievement does not improve could ultimately lose their funding or face other sanctions.

Although the Title I changes took effect in the 1996-97 school year,
many changes the state is responsible for making have not happened.

State education officials have completed only half of the new statewide academic standards designed to make course work more challenging. Work has not even begun on the student achievement test intended to accompany those standards.

And there is no system in place allowing the state to intervene if a school’s test scores do not improve.

Nonetheless, the new rules are having a “big time” effect in San Jose, said Virginia McQueen, manager of categorical programs for the San Jose Unified School District.

“It’s really given us a clear picture,” McQueen said. “You look at a school, and you ask, what is it going to take to raise the student achievement? Is it the reading or the math? Where are our weak spots? You have to do a lot of analyses.”

To be sure, state and federal regulations by themselves will not guarantee that students get a better education, acknowledged Edith Edwards, principal of McKinley Neighborhood School in Franklin-McKinney School District in San Jose.

“But what I’ve seen is a real effort to do better,” Edwards said. “I think this will have an effect, because schools do not want to be labeled as low-performing. . . . If schools are committed to the program,
all students — including those not fluent in English– will benefit.”

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