Schools, guidelines need fixing

It's unfortunate Empire Elementary School in Carson City is being labeled as "needing improvement" under federal guidelines, because what really needs changing is the way the No Child Left Behind program evaluates schools.

The impression is that Empire is a poor or failing school. That's not the case. It does have some poor and failing students, which comes as no surprise to the school's teachers and administrators, nor to the parents of those students. Of the three Carson schools that qualify as low-income, Empire is the lowest. And more than half its students are learning English as a second language.

Overall, the school is improving on its test scores. But some "sub-groups" are not. The sub-groups included targeted areas such as ethnic groups, low-income families, special education and students who are still learning English.

Each is important, and it's crucial for school officials to get information on which "at risk" students need the most help. The problem, however, is how the federal guidelines compound failures but don't reward successes.

For example, an ethnic student from a poor family who doesn't speak English well can be scored as four strikes against the school if he fails the tests. On the other hand, when test scores improve generally -- meaning the school as a whole is pulling itself up -- the entire group still can be labeled as unsatisfactory.

"No Child Left Behind" is a nice concept, and the federal guidelines are designed to bring some accountability to schools that aren't adequately serving the community.

The effect at Empire, though, could be just the opposite. Under the "needs improvement" rating, parents will be able to send their children to another school. If many above-average students are pulled out, it could send the school into a spiral from which it will take many years to recover.

In a well-intentioned effort to leave no child behind, we fear an entire school could be left out in the cold.


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