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A School Left Behind?

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I work at a wonderful inner-city charter middle school in downtown St. Louis called Lift for Life Academy. The students are progressing academically and broadening their future goals. For many, our school provides their first-ever positive classroom experience. Lift For Life Academy is new—just seven years old—and still suffering from growing pains. Yet the school is alive with energy and optimism. I dare say we are a success story.

But the government tells us otherwise. According to No Child Left Behind, we are a failing school. We have yet to meet our Adequate Yearly Progress objectives, as measured by the Missouri Assessment Program test.

According to No Child Left Behind, we are a failing school.

Our students come to us from the St. Louis school district, which lost its accreditation on June 15th of this year because, according to The New York Times, of its “history of administrative, financial, and student performance failures.” As products of this distressed system, most children enter Lift For Life reading well below grade level. Our student population is 95 percent free and reduced lunch, 99 percent African American, and 1 percent Caucasian. Many of the children live in neighborhoods where gangs, guns, and drugs are a regular presence on the street. And an alarming number of our students are periodically homeless or have a family member in prison.

It takes time to overcome such glaring deficits. Unfortunately, the timeline for meeting NCLB standards does not take these challenges into account. Prior to the 2005-06 school year, Lift For Life Academy had never had more than three 7th graders (out of 70), or 4.29 percent, score proficient on the MAP communications arts test. To remedy this deficiency, we offered small-group instruction and school-wide individualized attention.

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That spring, for the first time, the entire school was tested (as per the NCLB requirement to measure progress annually in reading, language arts, and math in grades 3 through 8). Those same 7th graders, now in 8th grade, tested 23.2 percent proficient, a six-fold increase from the previous year. Testing progress seemed remarkable, but the students still failed to meet the AYP goal of 34.7 percent proficiency. The AYP neglects to factor in our proficiency improvement, nor does it reflect our school’s true achievement: the number of basic students who advanced from nonreaders to enthusiastic and confident learners and readers.

As an instructor who has taught writing since Lift For Life’s first year, I have witnessed a cultural transformation at our school. In the early years, most of our students showed little initiative or intellectual curiosity. Today, these students compete to see who can read the most books. They brag publicly when they make the Honor Roll and they vie to be one of the school’s top ten achievers. The school’s average reading level has increased steadily over the past three years.

Even so, for the 2006-07 school year, 42.9 percent of the student body must score proficient or advanced on the spring MAP test or our school will suffer the consequence of non-compliance. We await test results knowing that, thanks to NCLB, the future of Lift for Life Academy hangs in the balance. The government could fire our principal, our staff, and pronounce Lift for Lift a failing school.

The No Child Left Behind Act is not without merit. The annual standardized test requires educators to teach to a specified baseline, which might otherwise be overlooked at a number of schools. However, NCLB is a report card with only one grade—an “objective” standardized test score—that measures children of poverty unfairly.

This year’s 8th grade MAP communication arts test had a timed section that described a string quartet that faced an unexpected challenge while playing Mozart. Bear in mind that few of the 60-plus public elementary schools in St. Louis city offer orchestra classes. Lift For Life can’t afford a music program and our students can’t afford to buy instruments or take private lessons. After the test, several students told me they’d never heard of Mozart. For my own two sons with their suburban education, this would never have been an issue. By 8th grade, they had studied musical instruments for several years, even playing Mozart in string quartets. I am not arguing that without a formal music education my students couldn’t have answered the MAP test questions. But the test is easier for those who don’t have to struggle to imagine these unfamiliar concepts.

At its best, NCLB sets a lofty goal. But it neglects to take into account whole-child education.

At its best, NCLB sets a lofty goal. But it neglects to take into account whole-child education. What about the value of individual learning styles? Or a child’s creativity? Or acknowledging a child’s progress?

Success should to be calibrated fairly. It should reflect an AYP model that considers systemic cultural and historical differences. Otherwise, a school like ours risks being mislabeled a failure. And, if a school like Lift For Life Academy is deemed a failure, then how many children will be left behind?

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