By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Alongside the many professional challenges presented by the No Child Left Behind Act, there is an emotional one.
Havre school administrators learned this week that the elementary district would have met the standards of No Child Left Behind last year if five more students with disabilities had had higher reading test scores.
All three grades and all three schools evaluated according to federal and state laws last year passed in every category, but the district still missed the mark because of those reading test scores.
"This is really hard for me," said Debbie Landgraf, special education teacher at Havre Middle School. "They work really hard, they sit down with the test. I can see the kids sit down and do their best." Landgraf was near tears. "I see great gains," she said Wednesday.
The law requires that a certain percentage of students test at proficient or advanced levels in two subjects, reading and math. It also requires that subgroups of the general population meet the same standards. There must be 40 students for a subgroup to be evaluated on its own.
Neither the Havre fourth or eighth grade had enough students with disabilities to make up a subgroup, and both grades passed. When the fourth and eighth grades were combined, a subgroup was formed and the elementary district did not pass.
"It takes away from the dedication of the people," Vance Blatter, Havre Middle School principal, said of the results.
While the repercussions for the district are minimal - a letter home to parents - there is a lingering effect on teachers who see progress in their students every day, but don't always see that progress reflected in test scores.
Since No Child Left Behind, President Bush's sweeping education reform, took effect, Havre administrators and teachers have spent a lot of time and energy responding to the law.
"We have worked our butts off in putting some plans together that will be relevant," Blatter said.
In response to the law, Havre schools have spent a lot of time revamping reading classes. Havre test scores in math have been consistently high, while doing less well in reading.
The elementary and middle schools have each implemented a new reading program that targets students at the lowest reading level and that gives all students more semesters of reading class over time. The schools also use the same company's reading materials in all grades through middle school, so that there is more consistency in teaching methods.
Jacki Kannberg, an English and social studies teacher at the middle school, said all the Havre schools are getting back to basics with reading as a result of the law. She's seen that reflected in the students' skills, both as they enter and leave the middle school.
Landgraf and middle school special education teacher Loretta Widdekind both say the schools' gains in reading have carried over into their classrooms, as they see their students gaining new skills earlier.
"Parents are pleased, the students have been pleased," said Landgraf.
Havre Middle School teachers and teaching assistants provide extra assistance for students who fall into a subgroup, and there has been some funding for more teaching assistants to help students with disabilities, Blatter said. In some cases, a student who needs extra help will have an assistant teacher in every one of his or her classes.
Havre administrators and teachers have reason to be satisfied with the school's response to No Child Left Behind. Each of the three Havre grades evaluated last year satisfied the law's three components - attendance, test participation and test performance. The Havre high school district satisfied all requirements as well.
Two years ago, the eighth grade missed the No Child Left Behind mark due to a test participation rate of 94 percent, short of the 95 percent standard - a rate that rose to 100 percent last year. Also, the eighth grade had a subgroup of students with disabilities that did not have enough students test at the proficient level for reading or math.
Last year's combined fourth- and eighth-grade subgroup of students with disabilities met the math standards and missed the reading standards.
Teachers have put extra emphasis on assisting students who fall into the subgroups evaluated by the state, Blatter said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch was sympathetic with what happened in Havre - that the district failed the standards because of a narrow margin involving one subgroup.
"The law was intended, I think, to make sure subgroups show up, so you'd know what subgroups, like children with special needs, to help," she said. "But in fact, by pointing them out, by a school or district not making AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress), it's really a sanction. I think it's not really a fair way to deal with children."
McCulloch said that many schools and districts across the state had a similar experience. The state Office of Public Instruction released official written notification of No Child Left Behind status to schools statewide today.
"We're a testimonial" for what's happening elsewhere, Havre Superintendent Kirk Miller said.
McCulloch stresses something the teachers and administrators already know: The test is only one measure of a student's progress and of a school's progress. But teachers and administrators said the rules are less fair for students with disabilities.
"I'm very proud of our special ed students" Widdekind said. Her advice to her students before they take tests: "Do the best you can." She said she's always seen them do that, and never heard her students complain about it.
"They're the most-tested kids we have already," said Dennis Parman, HPS assistant superintendent. "We've set an artificial standard to some degree and we've asked students who don't have an innate ability to get them there to get there anyway. They probably have a greater challenge and a greater burden than anyone else."
Parman said that it's also difficult to talk to parents about their child's test score because on the one hand the school's message is that the test is important, but on the other hand the test is only one indicator of the child's performance or abilities.
Parman reconciles this, saying that for a school, the test scores are useful, but for any given student, the score may not be significant at all.
McCulloch's advice for helping students with disabilities meet those standards is that teachers and schools constantly stay abreast of new research that provides strategies for students who need to be taught in a different way.
Havre Middle School teachers are constantly meeting to share strategies, Kannberg said. One tool developed by the special education teachers helps accommodate students with disabilities when they are in general education classrooms. The accommodations might include seating a child with a hearing problem in the front of the room, or sometimes giving a student an oral assignment, rather than a written one.
"I still have high standards for that child," she said.
McCulloch said the difficulties in meeting the law could increase. President Bush announced that he's like to have more grades evaluated under the law, all grades between three and 11, except for grade nine.
She said the states haven't received any official notification of this change, but it's a possibility.