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Shawn Vestal: School letter fails in its own right

We were invited to leave our school this month.

Our school, it seems, has not made “adequate yearly progress” on standardized tests. Our school, it turns out, is “in School Improvement.”

“We must inform you,” read the letter from our school, “that you may choose to transfer to nearby school that is not in a ‘step of improvement.’ ”

Uh … yes, please? Or … no, thank you? Would it be possible to have a school that is both adequate and improving? Would it be possible to get an interpreter to put all this into the English language? Or shall we just accept those two average test scores at the bottom as the ultimate measure of the worth of our school and assume it ain’t worth much?

The letters going out to parents all over the state right now are the ripe, rank fruit of the No Child Left Behind Act and the misbegotten, punitive push to elevate standardized testing to the center of the public education. In theory, the ideas behind all this sound virtuous: Hold schools to high standards, give parents choices, measure progress.

But as a practical matter for parents, these letters are useless – perhaps worse than useless, because they might erroneously appear to be saying something useful.

They purport to tell us of “failing schools” but what they are telling us is the oldest story in the book: Schools with more children living in poverty fare worse than richer schools on standardized measures. They also tell us that schools showing great improvements will still be deemed, under the all-or-nothing standards of NCLB, to be failures. And they are offering a solution that is no solution: the chance to move to a nearby school that will almost certainly be deemed a failure itself within a year.

The story of these letters begins with President George W. Bush and his NCLB law. It required states to adopt a standardized test and to eventually reach a 100 percent pass rate. This is a wonderful, laudable goal. Is it a possible goal? Shall we equate falling short of that goal – by even a sliver – a failure?

Here’s the way Lorna Spear, executive director of student intervention and support services for Spokane Public Schools, put it: “It’s a good bar. We should be doing that – 100 percent of all our children. But it’s a high bar.”

The NCLB requires school districts to report to parents on “Adequate Yearly Progress” of their school, and to offer them the chance to move their kids out of schools that fall repeatedly short of AYP at district expense.

Most states have waivers from this final requirement, based on various efforts to improve. Washington lost its waiver this year over the teachers unions’ refusal to accept student achievement measures as one of several factors in performance evaluations. This line in the sand seems extreme. One wonders why the Washington Education Association could not swallow such a tiny pill, however bitter, for the greater good.

But they couldn’t, so neither could a majority in the Legislature – and so parents and districts are paying this price.

Spokane Public Schools sent out 13,000 letters to parents in recent weeks. About 170 parents have asked to be moved to a school with better test scores, said Spear.

That’s a pretty small number, in context, and it might reflect the fact that most parents recognize this process for what it is: a lousy way to measure their school’s quality. But it might also reflect something else: the impenetrable nature of what these letters and this system are saying to us about schools.

Perfection is a fine and worthy and impossible goal. Based on the NCLB metrics, Spokane schools have a long, long way to go. Of the district’s 34 elementary schools, 22 fell short of AYP to such a degree that they had to offer parents the option of moving. But the complicated matrix of measurements involved – in which Title I schools carry a different level of requirements, for example – produced such inanities as this: Parents in the Cooper Elementary district were offered the chance to move to schools with worse test scores.

Meanwhile, each of the district’s middle schools is also in this “step of improvement,” requiring the district to offer parents a chance to move, but making it impossible for the district to do so.

This is preposterous. My school’s test scores are not good. There is no question about it. And the school – and the district and all the districts in the state and country – should certainly be focused on evaluating and improving the way they operate, especially for kids who arrive at the classroom with the largest life burdens from outside it. But what the tests measure – and what they do not – does not tell the story of my school or of the quality of education I believe my child is receiving there.

I think we’ll stay.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.