Good Schools or Bad? Conflicting Ratings Leave Parents Baffled
September 5, 2004
By SAM DILLON
DARIEN, Ill.- Students are returning to classes across the
nation amid a cacophony of contradictory messages about the
quality of their education, as thousands of schools with
vaunted reputations have been rated in recent weeks as
low-performing under a federal law.
School ratings issued under the terms of the president's No
Child Left Behind law have clashed with school report card
systems administered by some states, leaving parents unsure
which level of government to believe or whether to transfer
their children, an option offered by the law.
In North Carolina, which pioneered one of the nation's most
sophisticated accountability systems, more than 32 schools
ranked as excellent by the state failed to meet
Washington's criteria for academic progress. In California,
317 schools showed tremendous academic growth on the
state's performance index, yet the federal law labeled them
Here in Darien, the Hinsdale South High School is one of a
dozen prestigious high schools in prosperous Chicago
suburbs that failed to meet a federal target and were
obligated to send letters to parents explaining their
shortcomings and offering to transfer children to other
The conflict between state and federal evaluations has
confused hundreds of communities since early August, when
class bells began ringing for the fall term in several
Southern states. In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush announced that
the state had rated more than two-thirds of Florida's 3,100
schools as high-performing. But three-quarters were rated
as low-performing under the federal law.
"We have a school down here that is absolutely
extraordinary - all the kids take Advanced Placement
courses,'' said Jane Gallucci, chairwoman of the Pinellas
County School Board and a past president of the Florida
School Boards Association, "and the feds called it a
failing school. Now that's ludicrous."
The mixed messages are creating headaches for hundreds of
thousands of American parents considering whether to
transfer their children, an option available when a school
is declared low-performing for two years in a row because
it missed the targets of the federal law, which President
Bush signed in January 2002.
Many affluent communities where gaining entrance to elite
colleges is nearly an obsession have been rattled by the
law's verdict on their schools, which can fall short if not
enough students show up for a test or because mentally
retarded students do not perform at grade level.
In Darien, Hinsdale South missed one federal target based
on low test scores by a handful of disabled students, and
the school district, as required by law, sent letters to
Betsy Levy, whose daughter Samantha is a junior, said she
found the letter so confusing, she had to reread it several
times. "Our school has been very good for us, and seeing it
labeled a failure is hard to take," Mrs. Levy said.
When she met with four other Hinsdale South mothers to
discuss the problem, she wondered aloud whether colleges
would now look down on Hinsdale South applicants. And a
friend, Donna Siefer, voiced another worry: How would real
estate agents finesse the bad news to potential home
buyers? That rang bells for Diane Bolos, president of a
Hinsdale South fund-raising group.
"Yeah, did Congress consider what labeling a school would
do to property values?" Mrs. Bolos asked.
The law aims to allow children to transfer to better
schools, thereby encouraging all schools to improve. But
parents at Hinsdale South expressed little interest in
moving their children, complaining instead that the law's
yardstick was faulty. That was a view shared by
Representative Judy Biggert, a Republican who represents
"I never expected to see all these suburban schools on the
watch list," said Ms. Biggert, who started her political
career as president of the Hinsdale school board in the
1980's and helped write the federal law. She said she was
astonished at the list of schools with excellent
reputations in wealthy Chicago suburbs slapped with the
"I've been in all these schools and know how good they are
and have concerns that so many schools of this caliber are
getting labeled," she said.
It is a sign of the law's sweeping influence that the mood
in schoolhouses across the nation seems closely tied to its
annual verdict on academic progress. In schools like
Cumberland Trace Elementary in Bowling Green, Ky., where
students met their test targets, "Life is good," said
Patrice McCrary, who teaches kindergarten. "Our classes
have jelled nicely this fall."
In contrast, at the Arnall Middle School in Newnan, Ga.,
where students with limited English skills failed to meet
the law's targets, morale is low, said Lorraine Johnson,
who was a national Teacher of the Year finalist in 2003.
"Teachers are feeling pressure and frustration because
Arnall has been labeled."
Eugene Hickok, deputy United States secretary of education,
acknowledged that the law had put many schools with great
reputations on probation because one or more groups of
students had insufficient progress on standardized tests.
"But the point of the law is not to label schools," Mr.
Hickok said. "The point is to find out which students are
not performing well, and to do something about it."
Furthermore, achievement at many schools placed on academic
probation last fall has risen since because educators have
become more focused, he said.
Among the criteria that have caused thousands of schools to
fall short are requirements that disabled students pass the
same tests as other students and that 95 percent of
students in a school and in every ethnic group be tested.
Many states measure schools by other yardsticks, for
instance commending schools that help low-scoring students
progress rapidly to higher academic levels. But judging how
well schools are performing by federal standards is
becoming trickier, as rules have changed in recent months.
Starting last December, after an outcry from local
educators and lawmakers, especially in Republican-governed
states, Education Secretary Rod Paige relaxed some
regulations considered arbitrary and unfair.
For example, the rule requiring 95 percent participation on
standardized tests has been relaxed for some states to
allow them to meet the rule by averaging participation over
several years. In recent months, federal officials have
allowed more than 40 states to amend their school
accountability systems in ways that have often made it
easier to meet the federal standards, said Patricia
Sullivan, deputy executive director at the Council of Chief
State School Officers, which represents state
superintendents of education.
It is too soon to tell exactly what impact this will have
on the number of schools labeled low-performing. Despite a
federal rule requiring states to identify schools missing
federal targets before the resumption of classes each year,
many states have missed the deadline. A year ago, the law
labeled 26,000 of the nation's 93,000 public schools as
low-performing. So far this year, 26 states have reported
their numbers. Last year in those states, 13,423 schools
missed the targets. This year, the number is 10,918, said
Scott Young, a policy specialist for the education program
at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Georgia, Delaware and Kentucky, for instance, a higher
percentage of schools met goals than last year. But in
other states, including Iowa, Oregon and Minnesota, the
number of schools on academic probation has greatly
[In New York City, the number deemed failing for the second
year running dropped to 328 from 366, according to a list
released Friday by officials in Albany. Many of the schools
have built dazzling reputations for educating immigrant and
minority students who have floundered in other schools,
said Ann Cook, an expert and a co-director of Urban
Academy, an innovative school with a national reputation
and not on the low-performing list.
Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day School, Ms. Cook
said, has been doing so well reaching out to young adults,
it was recently profiled on the television program "Now
With Bill Moyers." Yet it is on the list.
"Calling these schools failures is like sending cancer
patients who are deathly ill to Sloan-Kettering, and when
they die, you say, 'Let's hold Sloan-Kettering
responsible,' '' said Ms. Cook, a frequent critic of the
Among the states that have not yet publicly identified
schools falling short this year are Connecticut and New
Jersey, both of which had highly regarded schools put on
academic probation last year.
In Westport, Conn., the Bedford Middle School, where test
scores are often among Connecticut's highest, was called
low-performing because the school failed to meet the 95
percent standard for testing for the disabled by one
"It really bugs me that we got a black eye for a mechanical
reason rather than for anything legitimate," said Dr.
Elliott Landon, Westport's superintendent.
Montgomery High School in Skillman, N.J., was honored by
the federal Department of Education as a Blue Ribbon School
of Excellence in 1993, and last year its mean SAT score of
1220 was 194 points above the national average. But
Montgomery, too, failed to meet federal targets last year
because one student's absence brought the school afoul of
the rule requiring that 95 percent of students take
But even some of the law's supporters are concerned about
great schools being labeled as low performers this year.
Former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, who now
heads an institute bearing his name that studies education
policy, called No Child Left Behind "a good idea that is
helping us ensure that all children learn."
But Mr. Hunt took umbrage when he saw that it labeled
Leesville Road High School, in Raleigh, N.C., as a low
performer. North Carolina's grading system rated it an
excellent and high-academic-growth school.
"I've visited Leesville, and this is one great school," Mr.
Hunt said. "This business of No Child Left Behind
contradicting our state systems is very confusing for
parents. We need to work this out so that states aren't
telling them one thing and the feds something else."