By VEENA TREHAN, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (March 26, 2008) - Maryland school superintendents met with U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond Simon on Wednesday, asking him to consider changes to the No Child Left Behind law for disadvantaged students.
"Special education students, English language learners and our poverty students—those are the issues most of us are grappling with," said Kevin Maxwell, superintendent of Anne Arundel County Public Schools, at a roundtable discussion with 13 county superintendents, Maryland Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick and other state education officials.
Maryland schools placed in the top three states nationwide in an Education Week survey this year and showed an upward trend in several key performance measures since 2002. Yet Maryland still has a way to go before all children pass basic math and reading proficiency tests by 2014, the absence of which may trigger state takeovers of schools or reduced federal funding.
"I don't think any of us don't want standards," said Maxwell at Annapolis Senior High School, a school that avoided a state takeover last month by implementing a three-year restructuring plan. "This . . . is going to be a big struggle."
In a state scorecard distributed at the panel, poor Maryland students lagged behind white, black, and Hispanic students. State data shows that among low-income students, 76 percent of fourth-graders and 50 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in reading, versus 93 and 82 percent of white students in the same respective grade levels. Math proficiency was at 76 percent and 35 percent in the fourth and eighth grades respectively for poor students, versus 93 and 74 percent for white students in the same grades.
Carl Roberts, Cecil County superintendent, said a nurturing environment for little more than half their day is insufficient to help these disadvantaged students. Schools should get credit for helping these students graduate in five-to-seven years, rather than see their metrics reflect a drop in on-time high school graduation.
"We should credit our perseverance and the school's perseverance," said Roberts. "School systems need to be recognized for how many children get a diploma."
Karen-Lee Brofee, Somerset County superintendent, said the 68 percent county poverty rate shows students should have greater access to career and technical programs, both of which have taken funding cuts.
But Simon said these programs exhibit low performance standards and often teach less important skills than reading, writing and math fundamentals.
Special education students and those with limited proficiency are often poor, and experts say they may require greater accommodation.
Harford County Superintendent Jacqueline Haas said delays to the 2014 goal should be considered for special education students.
"Why don't we fix the root of the problem versus being in a situation where there is misalignment of (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and (No Child Left Behind)?"
A significant minority of special education students are subject to waivers, Simon said, and he is not willing to delay No Child Left Behind requirements past 2014.
Superintendent Sydney Cousin said students in Howard County come from 85 different countries and speak 70 languages. Often, he said, teachers cannot make students proficient within a year, the point at which they must take the assessment.
"It's just not realistic—nor a fair standard—to have teachers deal with our requirements," he said.
Simon talked of opportunities for testing in another language, an option that took Cousin and other superintendents by surprise.
Down the line, Simon said, states could see administration support for flexibility in measuring teacher "effectiveness," restoration of the considerable budget cuts to Reading First programs, and reworking the definition of violent high schools.
Grasmick concluded the panel by telling Simons that the state would apply for "differentiated accountability," a pilot of up to 10 states to separate schools close to meeting their target from those requiring significant reform. The administration has called for this measure in the reauthorization of the expired No Child Left Behind law.
But Simon sounded a warning note. "It would be great if all states could get differentiated accountability. But they don't all qualify."