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States Address Academic Concerns

By David J. Hoff — September 23, 2005 6 min read
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State and local officials are slowly untangling complicated webs of accountability, testing, and graduation policies, hoping to give thousands of students displaced by Hurricane Katrina a better handle on their academic standing.

But while officials in Texas, Tennessee, and Alabama offered some guidance to such students last week, school leaders in storm-ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi continued to wait for responses to their requests for flexibility in meeting some federal requirements.

Mississippi state schools chief Hank M. Bounds pressed his case in Washington with members of Congress and officials at the U.S. Department of Education. His state has asked that districts battered by Katrina and those enrolling large numbers of displaced students be exempted this school year from the No Child Left Behind Act’s rules on adequate yearly progress.

Mississippi state schools chief Hank M. Bounds and top aide Susan Rucker pause in the Cannon House Office Building on Sept. 21. They were in Washington to seek financial help and policy waivers for districts coping with hurricane-related needs.

“The sentiment right now [in the Education Department] is not to grant the waiver on AYP,” the centerpiece of the federal law’s accountability provisions for schools, Superintendent Bounds said in an interview after those meetings last week. “There may some sentiment [to do so] in the future.”

Cecil J. Picard, the state superintendent in Louisiana, has made a similar request. He had hoped to get answers from U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings during a Sept. 22 meeting in Baton Rouge. That meeting was canceled as federal officials geared up for another potentially devastating storm, Hurricane Rita, which was headed for the coast of Texas and southwestern Louisiana late last week.

Overall, though, the transition from crisis-management mode to one of long-term planning is well under way in state education agencies dealing with the academic implications for students uprooted by Katrina.

“Our top priority has been getting students into schools,” said Kim Karesh, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education, which reported that 3,281 displaced students had enrolled in the state’s schools. “Now we’re coming back and saying what does this mean.”

Testing in Texas

While federal officials deliberate over how they will handle federal rules, state officials are addressing questions about how to assimilate large numbers of students who have been held to different standards and coursework requirements in their home states.

Hank M. Bounds, Mississippi's state schools chief, listens to questions during an interview with Education Week in Washington on Sept. 21. Mr. Bounds has lobbied federal officials on his state's request for waivers of some provisions of the No Child Left Behind law.

Their decisions have the potential to change whether a student earns a diploma next spring or advances to the next grade in the 2006-07 school year.

Last week, Mr. Picard met with Texas Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley to discuss ways to ensure that seniors from Louisiana who have ended up in Texas can earn diplomas on time.

The two state chiefs sought ways for Texas schools to accept credits earned in Louisiana, share transcripts of students returning home, and even administer Louisiana’s high school exit exam to students who want to earn diplomas from their home schools, according to a news release from the Louisiana Department of Education. According to the most recent count, Texas has enrolled 45,129 Katrina evacuees, most of whom came from Louisiana.

Louisiana students also have the option of taking online high school courses that satisfy their state’s graduation requirements through Louisiana State University’s Web site, the state education department said.

While many of such issues remained unanswered last week, other decisions have been made.

For example, if a Louisiana student wants to earn a Texas diploma, he or she will need to abide by the Lone Star State’s rules, according to Ms. Neeley. She announced that displaced students must pass the state’s graduation test to earn a Texas diploma and urged them to sit for the Texas test when it’s given next month. “If it seems likely that a student will remain in Texas and work toward a Texas high school diploma, the student and his or her parents should choose for the student to test this October,” Ms. Neeley said in a Sept. 15 memo to school administrators.

In the lower grades, Texas requires students to pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, before being promoted to the 4th, 6th, and 9th grades. The same will be true of evacuees. State law does not give the state commissioner the power to waive the testing requirements, said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

But Texas school officials are concerned that students from Louisiana and Mississippi may not be prepared to pass the TAKS, which is aligned to a different curriculum from those that the children have studied.

Texas officials point out that students who fail the tests in the spring will have two chances to pass before the 2006-07 school year begins.

“If they fail, they immediately get tutoring and all kinds of intervention,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “They won’t be left floundering.”

In Louisiana, where most of the nearly 70,000 students from the New Orleans and St. Bernard districts are unlikely to return to their home schools this school year, the state board of education was scheduled to meet this week to discuss whether to go forward with testing required under the No Child Left Behind law.

In Alabama, students who have been displaced from other states will need to pass the Alabama high school exam to earn a diploma there, school officials said.

But officials in Tennessee and Mississippi said they would compare their own state exit exams against those already given to displaced students in other states. If the exams are comparable, they said, the states will waive their own tests and award diplomas to students who have passed the tests in their home states.

Accountability Questions

Mississippi officials don’t know to what extent their schools will need to comply with the NCLB law’s accountability requirements. Still, they plan to assess all students—including those displaced by the hurricane—in reading and mathematics this year in grades 3-8 and once in high school, as required by the federal law

In the wake of the storm, Mr. Bounds, the Mississippi schools chief, said that the worst-hit districts wouldn’t need to test students this year. (“Mississippi Begins Clearing Wreckage, Planning for Classes,” Sept. 14, 2005.)

He now says that most of the state’s testing will occur as planned, which includes the reading and mathematics tests needed to calculate adequate progress under the federal law, and will be administered statewide.

But Mr. Bounds hopes to scale back the potential sanctions for districts in the Gulf Coast and for districts that have accepted large numbers of displaced students—both under state and federal accountability rules.

“When you have the right curriculum and funding in place, you should be held accountable,” Mr. Bounds said. But it’s not fair, he added, to hold schools to standard accountability rules after they have missed more than 30 days of instruction—as many schools in the Gulf Coast will have missed—or taken in up to 500 students, as districts in Jackson and near Memphis have done.

Mr. Bounds favors letting districts carry over last year’s state accountability ratings if their scores drop because of the storm’s impact. He also remains hopeful that the federal Education Department will grant waivers on AYP to schools and districts temporarily closed because of Katrina or enrolling its displaced students. Federal officials told him they would consider those waivers on a case-by-case basis.

“I’m all for accountability,” Mr. Bounds said. “I am much more concerned today about the mental health of children and adults.”

Accountability is expected to come under discussion in a special Mississippi legislative session that was slated to begin Sept. 27, when school officials plan to ask legislators to allow storm-hit districts to request flexibility under the state’s school accountability and finance laws, said Steve Williams, an executive assistant to the state education superintendent. (“Lousiana, Mississippi Lawmakers to Weigh Revenue Needs,” this issue.)

“There’s certainly going to be a hue and cry for relief for those types of things,” he said.

Staff Writer Alan Richard contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2005 edition of Education Week as States Address Academic Concerns

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