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Some local schools aren't meeting federal requirements

At least one in five Montana schools - including schools in Havre, Rocky Boy and Box Elder - have failed to meet new federal education standards, and about three dozen of those face sanctions for repeatedly falling short of federal requirements, state education officials reported Thursday.

Havre High School, Havre Middle School, Sunnyside Intermediate School, Rocky Boy Elementary School, Rocky Boy High School, and Box Elder Schools were on the list for failing to meet the standards. Havre school officials said this morning Havre's inclusion in the list was not a result of poor test scores.

"We made those lists based largely upon participation rates," Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller said this morning. "Our goal for next year will be to assure that the number of kids who take the test will meet the demands for adequate yearly progress, which means greater than a 95 percent participation rate."

Miller, who chairs the state Board of Public Education, said he is upset that the list was completed and released to the media before schools had a chance to meet with the state Office of Public Instruction to discuss the results.

"The consternation that's created by the reporting of the scores before all the scores were complete ... is a real hard complication," he said, because many school officials will not yet understand why exactly their schools were placed on the list.

"Getting the cart in front of the horse really causes a lot of problems," he said.

Miller said the schools may be on the list for reasons unrelated to the education most students receive, but the harm to people's perception of those schools has already been done.

The report is the first assessment of schools under the new federal law known as No Child Left Behind, a sweeping overhaul of education requirements intended to improve the quality of education for all students.

Failing to meet the federal standards in two or more consecutive years results in a school being required to spend money on such things as teacher training and tutoring services, or face loss of federal aid.

The results, which measure whether a school is making ''adequate yearly progress,'' are based on reading and math test scores, attendance, high school completion rates and test participation among 11 categories of students.

Among Montana's 862 public schools, 52 percent, or 452, achieved that standard and 21 percent, or 179 schools, did not. But those figures will change later this year.

The status of another 27 percent, or 231 schools, has yet to be determined because their overall enrollment or number of certain types of students is so small that officials have to look at individual test results. The results for those schools will be calculated by Dec. 1.

The standards dictate that for every grade taking the test, 95 percent of the students in the grade are present for the test, Miller said. He said the tests take place over a week, and that many students in activities and sports miss them. He also said there may be calculation errors in participation rates that resulted in Havre's inclusion on the list.

Miller said that in the high school and middle school, students with disabilities did not meet the federal guidelines in the reading and math tests. Federal officials divide the students who take the tests into categories like ethnicity, gender, disabilities and economic background. If any one of those groups of students does not meet the required test scores in reading and math, the entire school gets put on the list, he said.

No Havre schools were on the list of schools facing sanctions.

The elementary school, middle school and high school at Rocky Boy, as well as the middle school at Box Elder face sanctions.

Box Elder middle school principal Wes Fehr said this morning the eighth grade was the reason Box Elder was on the list. That grade has been on a list of schools categorized as in need of "school improvement" by the federal government, he said, because its test scores did not meet federal standards.

Fehr said the eighth grade met the test score requirements this year, but must do so two years in a row before it can be taken off the list. Fehr said he could not comment on the reasons why the other Box Elder schools failed to meet the guidelines.

Box Elder Schools Superintendent Bob Heppner was not available for comment this morning.

Rocky Boy school officials did not return calls asking for comment this morning.

Of the 179 schools not making the grade this year, 34 have failed to meet federal education standards in at least one previous year. The federal law mandates those schools respond by developing programs designed to improve student performance.

All but four of the 34 schools are on or near American Indian reservations, reflecting a history of low student test scores among Indian students that education officials attribute to language, cultural and income barriers.

Linda McCulloch, state superintendent of public instruction, said those results are no surprise to educators in Montana.

''The law just requires us to publicly identify schools that have challenges they need to face,'' she said. ''They know the areas that they need to work on.''

As they did in the past when her office released annual student test scores, parents, school administrators and teachers should look at this new measuring stick as just one means to gauge their schools' quality, McCulloch said.

She said Montanans should not overreact to the results of this new measuring tool.

''Montanans in Montana communities are very close to their schools,'' she said. ''Our folks know the quality of their local schools, and the quality of their local schools didn't change between Wednesday and Thursday when this announcement was made.''

McCulloch, as many other education leaders in rural states have done, questioned the usefulness of the new federal law in Montana. Although Montana schools get only 12 percent of their total funding from the federal government, the new requirements can force local school boards to alter their budgets to comply with federal sanctions, she said.

''This law is the most intrusive piece of legislation that's ever come down to the state in any area, not just education,'' she said.

McCulloch acknowledged the new threat of federal sanctions could nudge communities and trustees to more readily tackle the problems in their schools, but she said in Montana that involvement is already very intense.

''When schools have problems and challenges, community, parents and business jump in and try to make it better,'' she said.

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