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UC Berkeley Press Release

New study looks at Bush administration school reforms

– A new study shows that thousands of California schools are falling short of new federal standards, not due to faltering achievement overall, but because their diversity triggers many more hurdles than schools serving more homogenous students. Not succeeding in just one category can spell failure for the entire school, the report says.

These standards, championed by the Bush White House and approved with bipartisan support in 2002 in the No Child Left Behind Act, aim to pinpoint schools that fail to raise children's achievement. Over 3,000 of California's 7,669 schools were deemed "needing improvement" under Washington's new rules this fall.

While some California schools have been improving at a steady clip by the state's own accountability standards, Washington requires that all schools must test 95 percent of each student subgroup - such as disabled students, all racial groups, youngsters with limited English or those coming from low-income homes.

Using this measure, half the schools in Los Angeles and Sacramento fell short, as did 68 percent of San Jose's schools, 69 percent in Santa Ana and 73 percent in Fresno. Almost one in seven students nationwide now attends school in California.

The state Board of Education requires that a student group comprising15 percent or more of a school's population must meet testing and growth targets of sometimes more than 20 hurdles under the Bush administration reforms, said the researchers.

When schools miss any target for any one student group, federal sanctions kick in. This allows parents to pull their children and move to another school and requires that school-funded tutoring programs be created. If student performances continue to lag under the new federal rules, teachers can be replaced or the school handed to a private manager.

Just half of California's suburban high schools met Washington's new definition of being effective this fall, according to the researchers. The odds of falling short and federal penalties coming into play doubled for middle-class high schools that enroll three subgroups, such as whites, Asian Americans, and learning-disabled children.

The study was conducted by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), a research center based at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University, in collaboration with the Long Beach public schools' research office. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation supported the project.

"Washington policy makers are earnestly trying to identify mediocre schools," said study co-author, John R. Novak, assistant research director and evaluation at Long Beach Unified School District and a statistician at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "Yet, we discovered hundreds of middle-class schools that the feds began to penalize this fall, schools that are only guilty of enrolling diverse children."

"Good intentions have gone awry," said Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor of education and public policy and co-author of the study. "It's simply more difficult to flip a silver dollar and get three tails in a row than to get one."

Researchers urged policy makers to improve accountability rules by:

* Eliminating the diversity penalty by rewarding schools when overall student achievement is growing, while still reporting on each subgroup's progress. "Hair-triggers now tied to numerous student groups now invoke punishment far worse than the crime," Novak said.

* Fixing policy inconsistencies that lead to contradictory messages sent to parents, such as when Sacramento applauds schools that are improving, but Washington simultaneously says they are failing.

* Creating positive rewards for schools that boost student achievement, such as regulatory relief that would save public funds. A system built only on penalties and pain will not likely motivate local educators, according to the researchers.

"We are not questioning the Bush administration's admirable goals," said Fuller. "But our findings do suggest that the new federal rules are yielding unintended and demoralizing effects inside many local schools."

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