The View From Rockland
A county in New York state takes a hard look at how the No Child Left Behind Act is working in its eight school districts—and offers its own vision for renewing the law.
Hillcrest Intermediate School here has one flaw. During the 2005-06 school year, its special education students failed to meet the achievement goals set under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. For that reason alone, the grades 4-6 school failed to make adequate yearly progress, the key measure by which the law judges schools’ success at raising student performance.
The faculty here received the news about its AYP status as if they’d been given an F on a report card. One year earlier, New York state had declared that Hillcrest was one of more than 500 schools in the state that had high achievement while also closing the achievement gap between minority and white students.
Hillcrest’s plight isn’t unique. Educators across the country can point to similar circumstances in their districts.
What distinguishes Hillcrest, the other schools in the 8,600-student East Ramapo Central School District, and the rest of Rockland County here is that the local community has worked together to come up with proposed changes to the 5-year-old law that would avoid problems such as the one Hillcrest faces while retaining the law’s emphasis on accountability. It may be the only such communitywide effort in the United States to closely study the lengthy law and recommend detailed changes to it.
Under the Rockland County plan, the tests in the accountability system would measure students’ progress based on portfolios of work and grades for classroom participation as well as scores on mostly multiple-choice exams. But testing would occur less frequently, and schools would be graded based on results for 4th and 8th graders, not the larger group the currently falls under the NCLB system. The accountability system would grade schools based on “achievement of standards at a height that is both fair and balanced for students,” the 72-page report outlining the plan says.
And, like many solutions proposed by local educators elsewhere, it contends the law will be successful only if the federal government increases the financing of it.
After their two-year effort to examine the law, educators, politicians, and community leaders from Rockland County plan to go to Washington to push their ideas on New York state’s congressional delegation. People here hope to influence the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law, which is scheduled to happen this year.
“It has to be done with a certain amount of common sense and the recognition that there has to be some changes to allow flexibility,” Harriet Cornell, the chairwoman of the Rockland County legislature and the person who spearheaded the countywide effort, said of the law’s renewal.
The Rockland group provides a unified voice for educators in the county and also reflects the way many educators around the country think about the law.
“It is representative,” Bruce Hunter, the associate executive director for public policy at the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va., said of the county’s effort. The law doesn’t reflect the ideas of those who abhor the law or those who love it, Mr. Hunter said, but “it captures mainstream thinking.”
Rockland County lies west of the Hudson River in a corner of southeastern New York state. The New York Thruway cuts across its southern border, connecting the rural sections of the state with the wealthy New York City suburbs in Westchester County, across the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Like Westchester, Rockland has a large population of New York City commuters. But unlike its neighbor to the east, Rockland has pockets of poverty in the small towns built around the crags that give the county its name.
Almost 15 percent of the 21,750 students attending the public schools in the county’s eight districts live in poverty, 5 percentage points lower than the statewide poverty average. About one-fifth of Rockland’s 293,000 residents are immigrants, mostly from the Dominican Republic or Central America.
When New York state started its own accountability system in the 1990s, the county’s schools did well on the state’s 4th and 8th grade tests. Schools such as Hillcrest Intermediate and West Haverstraw Elementary School, in the neighboring 8,100-student North Rockland Central School District, won accolades under the state’s program to recognize schools in which students of all racial and ethnic groups met state standards in English language arts, mathematics, and science. Since the No Child Left Behind law’s accountability system went into effect for the 2001-02 school year, New York schools have needed to make AYP goals to win those awards.
In 2005, Ms. Cornell was hearing how the NCLB law was changing the way Rockland County’s districts approached teaching, she recalls. Past versions of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which the NCLB law reauthorized, had sent money to the county’s school districts, but hadn’t demanded such dramatic achievement results from them or threatened actions such as mandatory school choice or tutoring services for schools that failed to meet student-achievement goals.
“It was changing public education,” Ms. Cornell, who chairs the governing body that is the equivalent of a county commission, said about the law signed by President Bush in January 2002. “As a mother and a grandmother, I was thinking about what it takes to love learning. It didn’t sound as if what was happening was assisting that.”
And those changes only intensified in the 2005-06 school year. That was the first time that the law required all districts to assess student progress in grades 3-8 and once in high school. The results of those annual tests in reading and mathematics are the main measure used to determine whether a school or districts makes AYP. Every school and districts must meet targets for the student population, as well as for students in every demographic, ethnic, and racial group, including special education students and English language learners.
With the assessment requirement fully in place, the 5-year-old law’s impact on schools is bigger than ever.
Ms. Cornell recruited Cliff L. Wood, the president of Rockland Community College, to be the co-chairman of an effort to examine how the federal law was playing out in the county. Twenty-eight people, most of them administrators from the county’s districts, joined the task force.
The NCLB law’s accountability system had spurred schools to “focus more attention on children who may have traditionally fallen through the cracks,” the group said in its final report, which was released late last year. But the law put too much emphasis on test results at the expense of other things, it added.
“Is it important that we hold ourselves accountable for our kids? Yes,” Valencia F. Douglas, the superintendent of the 2,900-student Nyack public schools and a member of the task force, said in a recent interview. “I absolutely agree … with the disaggregation of data. What I absolutely disagree with … is that the only way to prove yourselves as good teachers and a good district is in a one-shot test.”
A group of educators and community leaders in Rockland County, N.Y., offers suggestions for Congress to improve the No Child Left Behind Act:
• Set aside federal dollars for after-school programs in low-performing schools.
• Reimburse school districts for costs associated with administering tests.
• Create centers to help districts provide the professional development to prepare teachers to meet the NCLB law’s goals.
• Require private schools to provide the same information to parents about student achievement.
• Allow special education students to be assessed based on grade-level material that matches their learning abilities, and measure schools’ accountability based on those students meeting those goals.
• Expand test-score reporting to include the amount of academic growth students are demonstrating from one year to the next.
• Include an analysis of students’ classroom work, credit for classroom participation, and school report cards in determinations of students’ progress.
• Assess students every other year in reading and mathematics, on an alternating cycle, instead of testing them every year in both subjects.
• Base accountability scores only on 4th and 8th grade tests. Scores from other grades should be used to make educational decisions about children and track their progress toward proficiency.
“The pressure for accountability can cause a school district to say, ... ‘The tests are coming up. Let’s just drill and kill. Get them prepared for the test,’ ” said Mitchell J. Schwartz, the East Ramapo superintendent, whose assistant superintendent was a task force member. “We pride ourselves that we’re not going to let that happen.”
The task force’s report said the law’s focus on reading and mathematics instruction narrows schools’ curricula and forces them shun science, social studies, and the arts. It also said the law sets unrealistic achievement expectations, especially for students with disabilities and those who are learning English. And it said that Congress had appropriated just two-thirds of the amount it authorized to be spent on NCLB programs over the past five years.
The law’s defenders are unconvinced. The list of complaints amounts to an ill-informed “jeremiad” against the law, said William L. Taylor, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington watchdog group that supports the law’s accountability measures.
“By and large, … because these districts are pretty satisfied with the way things are going,” Mr. Taylor added, “they see [NCLB] as disrupting their good thing, and they don’t want to see that happen.”
Another prominent advocate for the law acknowledges that schools are having a hard time ensuring that special education students and English-language learners reach the achievement levels set under the law.
But the law’s accountability measures are designed to force educators to pay attention to students who otherwise might not be presented with challenging curricula, said Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington research and advocacy group that seeks better educational services for all children.
“We make them acknowledge that they have to have better services for special education kids or ELL kids,” she said. “What’s unfair about that?”
Several of the Rockland County task force’s proposals—particularly the call to reduce the amount of testing—are unlikely to be adopted. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and key leaders in Congress firmly believe that annual assessments are vital for schools in tracking the progress of their students.
But educators here suggest that the annual testing poses more problems than solutions.
At the pre-K-4 West Haverstraw Elementary, Principal Michael J. Gill said he learned enough about students’ academic progress from the state’s 4th and 8th grade testing program that existed before the NCLB law required testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school.
Six years ago, when Mr. Gill arrived at West Haverstraw, half the school’s students scored at the top two performance levels on the state tests’ four performance levels. Now, 80 percent of the school’s students are at those levels.
Almost all of that progress occurred before the state started testing every grade from 3rd through 8th. Even with periodic testing conducted by the state, Mr. Gill and his faculty were able to track student progress on a variety of classroom tests. The students’ scores on the state’s 4th grade test show that statewide testing doesn’t need to be annual to be effective, he argues.
Now that his school has to administer tests in 3rd as well as 4th grade, instead of just 4th grade, he said his staff has lost precious teaching time and concentrates too much on testing.
“That 4th and 8th grade model was much more manageable,” Mr. Gill said. “This 3rd-to-8th-grade model, it’s so much it’s a burden.”
But the Education Trust’s Ms. Haycock, one of the most vocal supporters of annual testing, suggests that the more frequent approach may be essential if the law is going to reward schools for demonstrating growth in individual students’ achievement—something that is a popular idea among policymakers that is almost certain to be debated in the reauthorization of the NCLB law.
Even if that sentiment is popular in Washington, the Rockland County report’s statement on testing and other issues may represent what educators throughout the country believe, said Mr. Hunter of the AASA.
“There’s a drip, drip, drip effect that people in think tanks that dominated the reauthorization last time are completely unaware of,” he said. “Members of Congress are going to hear a lot about this.”
The Rockland group is starting to circulate its report outside the county. Mr. Hunter and a few other Washington insiders have read it. This month, members of the group plan to travel to Washington to meet with aides of New York’s federal legislators in a meeting arranged by the staff of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.
“I don’t think they’ve started focusing in Washington,” Ms. Cornell said, referring to federal policymakers. “When that happens, I think we’ll be in demand.”
Vol. 26, Issue 22, Pages 22-25