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Published in Print: September 24, 2003, as E.D. Names Winners in New 'Blue Ribbon' Program

E.D. Names Winners in New 'Blue Ribbon' Program

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The Department of Education last week announced the first winners of its revamped Blue Ribbon Schools awards, but changes to the program have some state and local officials seeing red.

In keeping with the department's emphasis on the Bush administration's signature education law, the program last year was renamed the No Child Left Behind-Blue Ribbon Schools awards. But some educators have complained that some potential winners were eliminated from the contest when the department changed the rules.

South Carolina officials said last week that at least one school was stripped of the possible honor when the federal department decided in recent weeks that winners must have met "adequate yearly progress" on test scores as defined under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Three California schools nominated by the state were denied the honor, and state officials claimed that federal officials had made unreasonable and arbitrary changes in the award criteria.

The complaints emerged as Secretary of Education Rod Paige announced 214 winners of the 2003 awards on Sept. 17. (See Honors & Awards list.) The 21- year-old program was revamped and renamed last year after the secretary demanded a new recognition effort based almost solely on test scores.

While critics of the old Blue Ribbon awards have contended that some winners in years past did not deserve the honor, supporters insisted that the old awards program required a more thorough application that helped many schools find ways to improve. ("Paige Revamps Blue Ribbons, Basing Awards on Testing," Aug. 7, 2002.)

David Thomas, an Education Department spokesman, confirmed that Blue Ribbon winners must now meet adequate yearly progress as defined by their states to receive the awards. Schools with specific complaints can ask the federal agency to reconsider, he said.

Several states won't learn which of their schools won the award until Oct. 1, after those states report which of their schools failed to meet adequate yearly progress.

Dramatic Improvements?

Foster Park Elementary School in Union, S.C., would have qualified for the award had its test scores been slightly higher for students in special education, said Thomas White, the superintendent of the 5,000-student Union County district.

"It's very disappointing," Mr. White said. "We also have a concern that there's a national award ... and yet the criteria varies from state to state."

Foster Park qualified under new federal criteria that allow schools with more than 40 percent of students living in poverty to be eligible if they show "dramatic" test-score improvements. Schools also can qualify if they rank among the state's top 10 percent on test scores. Principal Dale Goff said the lack of an award wouldn't stop her school from improving more.

South Carolina officials may have reason to be upset that the Blue Ribbon awards are tied to achievement outcomes: 85 percent of the state's public schools are not expected to meet adequate yearly progress when results are released this week.

"This has become a national program without a national set of rules," said Jim Foster, a spokesman for the South Carolina education department.

South Carolina Lt. Gov. André Bauer, a Republican, called the changes "unfair" in a letter to the federal department.

California officials weren't pleased, either. They claim that the award criteria required schools to meet the 55th percentile on state tests, but that federal officials informed them this summer that the standard applies to every grade, not the school as a whole. The new results threw some schools out of contention.

"It's grossly unfair to the schools that made the criteria under the published criteria last year," said Bill Padia, the director of the California Department of Education's policy and evaluation division.

Montemalaga Elementary was one of the three schools left off the winners' list in California, but the local superintendent said last week that federal officials had reversed their decision and awarded the honor to the school.

Superintendent Ira Tobin of the 11,600-student Palos Verdes Peninsula district said the school missed the first winners' list not because of the 55th-percentile rule, but because it failed to meet adequate yearly progress when several parents of students in special education did not allow their children to take state tests, and one student's score was attributed to the school by mistake.

"It seems pretty outrageous to us that a school with its performance level ... gets caught up in this kind of technicality," Mr. Tobin said.

Federal officials could not be reached last week for a more detailed response.

Vol. 23, Issue 4, Page 28

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