Schools Seek Participation On Test Days
Juniors at Brookwood High School in suburban Atlanta had an extra incentive last week to come to campus: If they took all four days of statewide standardized tests, their names were entered in a drawing to win an MP3 music player or a movie ticket.
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The school was one of 135 in Georgia—and many more nationwide—that were tripped up last academic year solely because not enough students took assessments to meet a mandate in the No Child Left Behind Act. As a result, Brookwood was labeled as not making "adequate yearly progress" under the federal law.
Principal Jane Stegall stresses that attendance isn’t a problem at her school, generally considered one of the highest-performing in Georgia. The reason Brookwood High narrowly missed the federal threshold—at least 95 percent participation for different student populations—was confusion about whether certain students with special needs had to take the tests, she says.
Even so, she wasn’t taking any chances this time. Ms. Stegall made an extra effort to inform teachers, students, and parents about how important it was for all students to take the tests. And then, she tossed in the raffle for five MP3 players and 50 movie tickets, paid for with about $500 in school funds.
"Quite honestly, I wasn’t worried about our kids coming once they understood how important this was," she said last week. "But it was our way of rewarding them for stepping up to the plate and being here when we needed them here."
The federal test-participation requirement has spurred all kinds of activity by states, districts, and schools—everything from extra outreach and incentives to forming task forces or tinkering with graduation policies. The bottom line is that if not enough students from different student populations take the tests in a school, it doesn’t matter how well the rest perform. In the eyes of the No Child Left Behind Act, that school has not made adequate progress.
Some education leaders express confidence that inadequate participation will be much less of a problem this school year.
"We expect the number is going to drop sharply," said Stuart N. Bennett, the chief deputy state superintendent in Georgia, referring to schools that fall short of the participation requirements. "First of all, I think the schools are more aware of promoting good attendance now, especially during the testing window. ... Also, the records will be more accurate."
Shortly after the testing results came out last year, the state education agency created a student-attendance task force to tackle truancy and related issues. It has about 30 members, including state officials, school principals, teachers, parents, district attorneys, and others. The panel, in fact, helped draft proposed changes to tighten up Georgia law with regard to student attendance.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education has indicated—without providing any details—that it will soon announce another round of flexibility under the No Child Left Behind law, this time aimed at the test-participation requirement.
Testing All Students
Under the federal law, students at all public schools are expected to become "proficient"—as defined by each state—by the end of the 2013-14 school year. The law requires steady academic progress overall and by subgroups of students, such as poor and minority youngsters.
The law dishes out increasingly tough consequences for Title I schools that continually fail to make adequate yearly progress. They range from compelling districts to spend a portion of their federal aid on allowing students to transfer from low-performing schools to restructuring a school if it fails to improve over several years.
Douglas B. Mesecar, the Education Department’s deputy chief of staff for policy, said the mandate of 95 percent participation in state tests was aimed at ensuring that schools’ performance was accurately measured.
"The intent was clearly to make sure that all students are tested, ... and that the gains they are showing are based on all students," he said. At the same time, he said, the 5 percent wiggle room "was designed to allow for a few kids not being in school the day of testing."
Mr. Mesecar said he understands that some education officials may be displeased with having the cutoff at 95 percent.
"One thing I would say is you’re really going to get a similar comment at 90 percent, or 92," he said, arguing that whatever the benchmark, at least some schools may well fall short. "Is [95 percent] high? I think absolutely. Does it need to be high? I think absolutely."
‘A Major Problem’
California has faced real challenges with the participation mandate.
"It’s been a major problem, especially at the high school level," said William L. Padia, the director of the policy and evaluation division of the California Department of Education. "Nearly two-thirds of our high schools failed on participation rate only."
As in Georgia, Mr. Padia predicts that greater awareness this year will make a big difference.
"There’s no better way of getting attention than having these [results] show up in the newspaper," he said.
At the same time, Mr. Padia said his state is seeking some relief from the federal government because California law allows students to opt out of testing. Federal officials last year rejected plans outlined by the California education department to exclude such students when calculating participation rates, but the state is asking them to revisit the matter.
However,TheSacramento Bee newspaper published an editorial March 22 opposing the state’s efforts.
"Drop the idea of asking for a waiver from the 95 percent rule," the editorial said. "That would only encourage more opt-outs, the last thing California needs as it tries to accurately gauge and address school performance."
Texas originally identified about 1,000 schools as not making adequate progress for the 2002-03 school year, with the leading reason being the test-participation rate, said Nancy Stevens, the director of the performance-reporting division of the Texas Education Agency.
One major snag was that the state had only one testing date for each grade level last spring.
"There was no testing window, no makeup test," Ms. Stevens said. "So, if Tuesday, April 29, was the day, that was the day."
This year, Texas will set just such a testing window to give schools greater leeway. Combined with a greater level of awareness, Ms. Stevens expects participation to be less of an issue.
Texas is still wrestling with exactly how many schools to categorize as not making adequate progress. The state had granted waivers last fall to hundreds of schools identified solely because of inadequate test participation after deciding that if fewer than 10 students were absent on test day, a school would get a pass. The federal Education Department overruled that policy in January, according to Ms. Stevens, but said the state could weigh the reasons students weren’t tested.
Many of those schools may well get waivers for legitimate reasons, Ms. Stevens said, such as student illness or because information was miscoded. As of last week, the state was still reviewing the appeals.
In many cases across the country, schools just narrowly missed the 95 percent participation rate last year. For example, Avondale Middle School in Michigan missed the benchmark by less than 1 percentage point, said Susan B. DesJardins, a spokeswoman for the 3,900- student Avondale school district north of Detroit.
"It was like one or two students," she said.
Avondale High School also missed the mark. Ms. DesJardins noted that 11th graders are supposed to take the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test annually, but said some students traditionally opt to skip it.
"A lot of students over the years have just chosen not to take the test," she said. In response, the district’s board of education adopted a measure this month making the 11th-grade test mandatory for graduation, effective with the class of 2005.
"If the federal mandate says you have to have 95 percent, we’re saying you have to take the MEAP," she said.
In Green Bay, Wis., five schools were identified last year as not making adequate progress, said Barbara J. Schaal, the director of literacy development and support for the 20,000-student district.
"We didn’t have any because of academic reasons," said Ms. Schaal. "It was strictly because of participation." More specifically, schools fell short on participation by minority subgroups.
Ms. Schaal said that her district did not seek to examine the reasons students didn’t take the tests, other than examining any cases of miscoding by schools.
She expressed optimism that participation won’t emerge as a problem for the tests that were taken this past fall. "I don’t think that’s going to catch us," she said.
Terry R. Fondow, the principal of East High School in Green Bay, said his school made extra efforts to be certain students took the Wisconsin test. As a result, the lowest percentage this school year for any subcategory was 98 percent participation.
"The question is," Mr. Fondow said, "at what cost, and to what benefit."
The principal said he spent "three full work days doing nothing but checking all the records of our students, finding out who we have to be accountable for."
He also temporarily hired a retired guidance counselor who spent three weeks focused on the issue. "He checked the tests every day and found out who had not taken them," Mr. Fondow said. "He went about trying to find them, … knocking on doors, ringing doorbells, and actually transporting students to school when we could find them."
The critical problem, Mr. Fondow said, was student mobility.
"We turn over a third of our students in a year," he said. "There are a lot of students coming and going. Many don’t leave forwarding addresses."
Meanwhile, in Georgia, principals such as Brookwood High’s Ms. Stegall last week were making sure they had enough students at school to meet the federal requirement.
Some 30 schools in her district—the 130,000-student Gwinnett County system—did not make adequate progress last year, with half of those identified solely because of test-participation levels.
Ms. Stegall said that last year, by the time she realized there were students with disabilities who should have been tested and were not, it was too late.
"We’ve made sure we won’t make that mistake again," she said.
Vol. 23, Issue 29, Pages 1, 30Published in Print: March 31, 2004, as Schools Seek Participation On Test Days