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Students Displaced by Storms Score Lower on State Tests

By Michelle R. Davis — September 19, 2006 5 min read
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Gulf Coast students who were displaced to other states last year by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita scored significantly lower on state tests than their peers in those new states, according to data released by several states that took in large numbers of such students.

That outcome was expected. Federal education officials announced earlier this year that six states would get a reprieve from the No Child Left Behind Act for the 2005-06 school year when it came to counting the test scores of students displaced by the hurricanes. The waiver allowed those states to separate displaced students into their own subgroup that would not count toward making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the federal law.

But federal officials said last week that the waiver was a one-time deal. States will not be granted the same flexibility for the current school year, said Hudson La Force, a senior counselor to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

“There were good reasons to set up the subgroups for last year, but there are even more important reasons as we move through this school year to not have any exceptions, and to bring those students into the full accountability system,” Mr. La Force said.

State and local officials appear to agree. According to Mr. La Force, none has approached the federal Department of Education about extending the waiver. Several state and local officials interviewed said it was important to include the displaced students in this year’s accountability measures.

“The ones that have remained we think are going to stay here,” said Mitzi Edge, a spokeswoman for the 84,000-student Fulton County, Ga., school district, which took in 1,100 hurricane-displaced students and still had 800 at the end of the last school year. “They are now our students; we are not going to segregate them out and call them anything other than Fulton County students.”

From Texas to Tennessee, states that took in large numbers of students fleeing the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita saw test scores for those students that were considerably lower than for their other students. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas all received permission to discount displaced students’ test scores in calculating AYP, though the students were required to be tested.

Though Mississippi has many displaced students, the state, for technical reasons, did not apply for the waiver.

“The general trend we saw, no matter what the grade level, is that students displaced by the hurricanes were trailing behind students in Texas,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. “It’s not too surprising. Given the trauma these students have been through, testing is probably not at the top of their lists.”

An Effect on Morale

The No Child Left Behind Act requires that schools test students annually in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8, and at least once in high school. Schools and districts must make AYP for their students as a whole and for specific subgroups of students, or face sanctions.

In Texas in the 2005-06 school year, 64 percent of displaced students in grades 3-8 and 10th grade passed assessments in reading/English language arts, compared with 85 percent of other Texas students. Forty-eight percent passed mathematics exams, while 76 percent of all other Texas students did.

In Tennessee, 83.7 percent of students in grades 3-8 scored at the proficient or advanced level on reading tests, and 81 percent were proficient or advanced in math. Tennessee has not yet released comparable numbers for other students in the state.

The reprieve from the federal government was important both for AYP calculations and for “the attitude and morale of the staff,” said Nadine Kujawa, the superintendent of the 58,000-student Aldine school district, near Houston, which took in 3,000 displaced students and still had 1,800 at the end of the last school year.

“It took the pressure off of them,” Ms. Kujawa said. “It really enabled them to focus on the children and the needs of the children, without worrying about what it was going to do to the test scores.”

In Georgia, officials sought the reprieve because students from the hurricane area had suffered “tremendous trauma,” and many of them moved through several school systems before settling in one, said Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education. “Our schools did a tremendous job in opening up their doors and their hearts to these kids, and we wanted to make sure there was nothing punitive about that,” he said.

Seventy-four percent of displaced students in Georgia met standards in reading and language arts, compared with 84 percent of the rest of the state’s students. Sixty-seven percent of displaced students met standards in math, compared with 81.9 percent of other Georgia students.

Mr. Tofig said Georgia has no plans to ask for another year to separate displaced students’ test scores: “We fully anticipate that the results of their tests will count toward AYP next year, and we’re ready for that.”

Grateful to Be in School

Though many states found that displaced students’ test scores were lower, some districts flourished anyway, Mr. La Force said. “The other side of the story is that the displaced students and their schools have done some amazing things,” he said.

In Mississippi, the Jackson County school district was able to make AYP for each of its 15 schools despite losing two schools to Hurricane Katrina, taking in 1,300 displaced students, and having to count nearly all of them, said Superintendent Rucks H. Robinson. Mr. Robinson said a majority of those displaced students were originally students in the 8,700-student district who were taken in by other local schools there.

The district educated students in shifts, held before- and after-school tutoring sessions, set up donation centers in school libraries where students could get items such as food and clothing, and provided five extra personal days for each staff member.

“People worked hard, and they worked hard every single day,” said Mr. Robinson. “Our children worked hard. They were grateful for the opportunity to get back to school.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Students Displaced by Storms Score Lower on State Tests

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