New federal law raises tough questions for CPS

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On Jan. 8, the federal government handed state and city school officials an enormous blinking, screaming, moving target, the No Child Left Behind Act.

The main purpose of the new act is to ensure that disadvantaged children are taught as well as and reach the same academic standards as children who are not disadvantaged. It does this principally by requiring new standards in a number of areas, including teacher qualifications, student testing and school accountability. It leaves most of the details to the states.

“You could certainly view some of the mandates as challenging … for a district our size,” says Marilyn Johnson, chief attorney for Chicago Public Schools. “But many things we undertake are challenging. We’re working diligently to meet the time requirements.”

Although formal federal regulations are not due until January, many requirements kick in this September. As a result, school officials at all levels have had to shoot from the hip. Hiring requirements for teachers and teacher aides have already changed for the upcoming school year. And the Chicago Board of Education quickly introduced legislation to define the “choice” options for children at failing schools.

Although there currently are far more questions than answers, CPS lawyers have been traveling to schools to brief principals on the new law. Reaction so far has “run the gamut from surprise to consternation,” Johnson said. “Some people see it as an opportunity for improvement.”

The following are snapshots of the major provisions of No Child Left Behind.

Yearly Progress

Schools have 12 years to bring all students up to academic “proficiency,” as determined by state tests.

Along the way, all schools must meet “adequate yearly progress” toward proficiency. To make this grade, students in various subgroups as well as the student body as a whole must meet the progress standard.

The subgroups are economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, students from major ethnic and racial groups and students with limited English proficiency. If any of these groups fails to make adequate yearly progress, the school fails.

Schools that fail will fall into one of four categories, depending on the number of years of failure: school improvement phases one and two, corrective action and restructuring.

Those that fail to meet the progress standard for two consecutive years enter into the first phase of school improvement, which requires them to provide parents the option of transferring their children to schools that have met the standard. The district must pay for transportation.

Based on state tests administered over the last three years, 265 of Chicago’s 491 elementary and middle schools and 34 of its 92 high schools will be placed in the first phase of school improvement this fall.

If they make the progress standard in this year’s testing, they will be taken off the improvement list the following year. If not, they will enter phase two in 2003-2004 and also be required to offer supplemental services to its children. In 2003, the state must issue a list of acceptable supplemental service providers; the district will determine the amount of service to provide.

Meanwhile an additional 10 Chicago public schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress between 2000 and 2001 are at risk of going into phase one of school improvement, based on this year’s testing.

Schools that fail for four consecutive years must take corrective action such as replacing certain staff or implementing a new curriculum. Schools that fail for five consecutive years must be restructured and face possible conversion to a charter school or other governance change.

Adequate yearly progress will be defined after this year’s testing. Under the law, it must be based on the scores of either the lowest-achieving school in the state or the lowest-achieving subgroup, whichever is higher. Once the initial bar is set, all schools and subgroups will have to reach proficiency incrementally over the 12-year period.

School Choice

The act gives parents the opportunity to transfer a child out of a failing school into one that has met the standard of adequate yearly progress, but it is silent on how that will occur. Chicago school officials are seeking state legislation to restrict such transfers in a number of ways:

Transfers would be restricted to once a year during a given period of time.

Students could not transfer to an overcrowded school. Currently in Chicago, an overcrowded elementary school is one where enrollment is at least 80 percent of design capacity; an overcrowded high school is one where enrollment is at or above 100 percent of capacity. In September 2000, nearly 170 schools were deemed overcrowded.

Students could not transfer to selective-enrollment schools, such as magnet or college preparatory schools, or schools that would be unable to accommodate a student’s disability.

New Hiring Standards

In order for all students to reach proficiency by 2014, they must be taught by “highly qualified” teachers and paraprofessionals, the act says.

“Highly qualified” is defined as fully licensed or certified by the state. Teachers with waived, temporary or provisional certificates are not considered highly qualified. As the district interprets the law, this would prohibit alternative certification programs where teachers work to fulfill certification requirements as they teach. However, other parts of the act are supportive of such training programs. The law also requires teachers to have at least a bachelor’s degree and to pass state proficiency tests, both of which Illinois already requires.

The new federal requirements apply to new hires beginning in September. Current teachers have four years to meet them. The act does not differentiate between full-time teachers and substitutes. As written, all teachers, including substitutes, must be “highly qualified” by the 2006-2007 school year.

Effective immediately, newly hired paraprofessionals who help teachers instruct students must also be “highly qualified.” That means they must have two years of post-secondary education and either have an associate’s degree or pass state or local tests on the ability to assist in instructing reading, writing and mathematics.

In Chicago, paraprofessionals are required to have completed 30 hours, or one year, of post-secondary study. Currently no tests are required.

Under the act, districts must notify parents when their children are being taught by teachers who are not “highly qualified.” Beginning in September, the district will notify parents whose children have teachers who are not “highly qualified,” and it will tell all parents they can request teacher qualification information at any time

Testing

The act mandates state testing in reading, math, science and English language proficiency. Tests must be administered to at least 95 percent of the students in the state as well as in each subgroup.

Illinois now tests students in reading and math in grades 3, 5 and 8. By the 2005-06 school year, it must expand this testing to grades 4, 6 and 7.

Illinois meets the high school testing requirement with the Prairie State Achievement Examination.

Beginning next school year, 4th- and 8th-graders from a sample of about 150 schools in the state must participate every other year in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, taking the reading and math sections of the test.

Illinois is ahead of the curve in science assessments.

English-language learners

Beginning next school year, the state must administer language proficiency tests annually for all students enrolled in programs for students with limited English proficiency, regardless of how long they have been enrolled. Currently, Illinois tests language proficiency in grades 3 to 11. CPS adds testing in kindergarten through 2nd grade.

The state also must develop annual achievement objectives to monitor progress; programs that fail to meet them for four years in a row must be modified. Now, the district monitors the progress of students with limited English proficiency, but it is waiting for a definition of “proficient” from the state.

The district must continue certify that all teachers in programs for English-language learners are fluent, both orally and in writing, in both English and any other language used in the classroom.

Parents of students with limited English proficiency must be told why their students were placed in the program and the program’s requirements. They also must be notified of their right to remove their children from the program.

Students who have attended school in the United States for at least three years must be tested in English. However, this requirement can be waived for up to two years on a case-to-case basis.

Making the Grade

Chicago has been working on a new annual school report card. Now it must add still more information required by the new federal law, including student achievement by subgroup and the percentage of teachers who are not “highly qualified.”

At the district level, it must report the number and percentage of schools identified for school improvement.

Updated school and district report cards that meet these requirements will be distributed to parents in September.