But because 32 eighth-grade special-education students failed to reach the 40-percent threshold for math on the October 2003 standardized test, the 1,050-student school is on the federal "watch list" for the current school year. In other words, those students caused the entire school to fail the federal government's standards for that year, as measured by Iowa's standardized test.
"It's a catch-22, because a student does not get identified for special education unless he or she is well below grade level," said Linda Goff, co-principal at the school.
No Child Left Behind only allows 1 to 2 percent of a district's population to be exempted from the standardized tests that assess proficiency. So students with learning disabilities that aren't severe enough to be grouped in that 1 to 2 percent are required to meet the same standards as other students.
"Students need to be at the eighth percentile or below to qualify" for special education, Goff said, "and yet we are supposed to bring them into proficiency." None of Bettendorf Middle School's 32 eighth-grade special-ed students tested at grade level in math in 2003.
The situation at Bettendorf Middle School illustrates one of the pitfalls of the No Child Left Behind law. Even a school that generally performs extremely well can be punished because of the test scores of a very small group of students.
And the situation is going to get a lot worse. While Illinois and Iowa presently require 40-percent proficiency, those percentages rise quickly, to 100 percent in 2014.
"I have heard it said that there are about 32 ways a school can fail, and only one way they can succeed, and that is to bring every student in every subgroup to a proficient level," Goff said.
In addition to Bettendorf Middle School, three schools in Davenport and two in Rock Island are presently on the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) watch list.
The premise of NCLB is that schools' performance should be judged not only on a building-by-building or district-wide basis but on the test scores of various subgroups within schools. Every subgroup - including special-education, low-income, and racial-minority populations (African American, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic, and Native American) - is required to meet the same proficiency standards, or the entire school fails.
Consequences for Failure
According to the Iowa State Board of Education Accountability Workbook, as few as 30 students constitute a subgroup under NCLB. In Illinois, a minimum of 40 students is required to be considered a subgroup.
"I do not think it's fair for students that are classified under the heading of special education to be the cause of some building being put on the watch list," said Linda M. Schneider, director of the Great River UniServ Unit at the Iowa State Education Association. "Some schools have programs for more severely involved students, and just because those programs are housed there, the building might not meet the requirements under the Department of Education."
NCLB was signed into law in January 2002. The legislation forces schools to close the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students, and schools and their districts must provide their state with an Annual Progress Report.
Students are presently tested at grades four, eight, and 11 under NCLB, and any subgroup in any grade can cause a school to be put on the watch list. Starting in the 2005-6 school year, testing and accountability will be expanded to include third through eighth grades, along with 11th grade.
If the first year proficiency standards under NCLB are not met, there are no consequences beyond the watch list and creating an action plan that identifies problem areas and articulates strategies to address them.
If a school is not proficient in a subject for a second consecutive year, a public notice of school needs must be sent to parents, who will then have the option to transfer their children to a higher-performing school. After the third year, the school must provide supplemental educational services to students in the form of free tutoring.
A fourth year of below-standards performance requires a school to take corrective action in the form of staff replacement, or hiring new teachers to aid student development. After five years, the school will be required to develop a re-structuring plan that could include converting to a charter school, turning the building over to a private management company, and/or replacing almost all staff. And after six years, the school must implement the re-structuring plan.
School districts don't get their funding cut because of poor performance, but the sanctions under NCLB can be expensive for them to implement.
Dr. Kristine Wolzen, director of general education at the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency, said federal Title I funding is not taken away from any school district as a result of failing to meet standards. (Title I funding is distributed to schools based on the number of students who receive free or reduced-cost lunches - in other words, the number of students from low-income households.)
But Daniel Kaufman, a spokesperson with the National Education Association (NEA), said that after a second year of below-benchmark testing, a school district will need to spend money on things such as extra instruction, tutoring, and busing students to higher-performing schools.
In addition, Kaufman said, there are concerns that Congress has under-funded NCLB. According to a September report prepared by congressional staff for U.S. House Democrats, NCLB has been funded by $17.1 billion less than its original authorization over its first three fiscal years; that deficit represents nearly 20 percent of its authorized funding. That means states and local school districts are getting less Title I funding than they were promised, Kaufman said.
To understand some of the challenges schools are facing with NCLB, it's important to explore some of the law's finer points.
Bettendorf Middle School's Goff noted that because NCLB tests the same grade levels each year, it doesn't recognize that different groups of students might have different educational needs. For instance, she said, the group of 32 special-education students that tested below grade level last year is now in ninth grade. Strategies that worked for those students might not be as effective for current pupils. "The characteristics of last year's group are being compared with this year's group," Goff said.
In addition, many critics of NCLB argue that it foists nearly impossible expectations on schools, particularly several years from now.
By 2014, NCLB requires 100-percent academic proficiency. In other words, every school district, every school, and every student in every subgroup within every school must test at grade level or better; if they don't, schools, and possibly their districts, are put on the watch list.
Kaufman said the NEA conducted a five-state study on the effects of NCLB and predicted that three-quarters to nearly all schools would fail by 2014.
"Hopefully, issues of proficiency will be addressed and revised by then," Kaufman said.
"No Child Left Behind will have to scale back [be more flexible] regardless of [the admirable goal of high] proficiency standards," said Gary A. Sloat, director of learning information services in the Davenport Community School District.
Remedies and Their Costs
When its status on the watch list became official, Bettendorf Middle School began concentrated instruction to try to raise proficiency levels among its special-education students.
Focus lessons target a specific area needing improvement. For example, students might get a 20-minute session on fractions if they scored low in that area on tests. The lessons might help pupils find new ways to approach the material.
These lessons are done a couple times a week, Goff said. On those days, there is no homeroom, and there is shorter passing time between classes.
Practice tests are given to students after the focus lessons, and if a student still does not meet the proficiency standard, he or she will have further instruction in that content area, in the form of an hour tutorial with about 10 other students. Those who pass practice tests attend education-enrichment activities.
In addition to direct instruction in areas where students didn't meet proficiency standards, Goff said, the school's administration is exploring new ways to teach math, focusing on research-based programs.
"To be research-based there has to be data that a particular program, curriculum, or method has been proven to improve achievement," Goff said. "Vendors need to [first] test their products with pilot groups to show their products improve student achievement."
Math and special-education teachers will be trained to work with the chosen math program. Implementation, however, will not occur until after teacher-training next year.
After Bettendorf Middle School was placed on the watch list, it was given $14,000 in federal Title I funding - channeled through the Bettendorf school district and the state of Iowa - for double instruction and teacher training. The double-instruction periods will run for 65 days and start in mid-January. One math and two reading teachers will be hired part-time to help with the Bettendorf Middle School double instruction.
Of course, continued under-funding of NCLB at the federal level could make those financial resources scarce, putting the full costs of new programming on the school districts themselves.
One of the quirks of the No Child Left Behind law is that because it addresses deficiency at a school level, additional instruction doesn't necessarily follow the students. For instance, the 32 special-education students who weren't proficient in math in 2003 are now ostensibly in the ninth grade - high school. Therefore, double instruction is being given to eighth-grade special-education students at the grade level that failed the previous year, but not to the actual students who failed. The school district does have an incentive to target those 32 students for extra instruction, however, because they'll be tested again in 11th grade.
With double instruction, grade levels that were not proficient in math have two math classes in one day a couple times a week. But if the students were not proficient in math and reading, they only get double instruction in one of the subjects.
These efforts to remedy achievement gaps among subgroups - focus lessons and double instruction - are employed regardless of which subgroup fails.
"We are attempting to teach the kids the skills that they need to know," Goff said. "No Child Left Behind has made us emphasize that, and to tie it with the testing."
Teaching to the Test
The impact of NCLB is most obvious when schools and/or districts are put on the watch list. But the law has altered the educational landscape generally, as well, even outside of reading and math.
"I have implemented a new vocabulary system, which emphasizes an important word for the week," said Bill Grothus, an industrial-technology teacher at Pleasant Valley Junior High. He added that he started the program because of NCLB.
"Reading instruction is highly emphasized," said language-arts teacher Julie Small of Pleasant Valley Junior High, "more so since NCLB has taken effect."
NEA's Kaufman said his organization worries that schools are so focused on meeting NCLB requirements that they teach to the test, at the expense of other important school activities.
For example, students might be given more instruction on how to read multiple-choice questions, he said, the ones with the "little bubbles." By emphasizing proficiency on tests, Kaufman said, extracurricular activities such as field trips might be cut out of the teacher-student schedule. "A student's talents and creativeness are lost when extracurricular activities are cut from a typical school day," he said.
Melanie Wilkins, a language-arts teacher at J.B. Young Intermediate in Davenport, shares those concerns. "Everything has to be relevant to what's on the test, as opposed to what's relevant in real life," she said. "Kids are going to miss out on life experiences because of the No Child Left Behind proficiency push."
Wilkins said that she's integrated a lot of reading-strategy work into her classroom because of No Child Left Behind and its focus on testing. She added that standardized exams aren't an effective way of judging what students have learned. "I think No Child Left Behind is an impossible dream, because every child learns differently, and a standardized test does not measure everything they know."
In Other Districts ...
On November 17, Goff presented Bettendorf Middle School's NCLB action plan to Williams Intermediate and J.B. Young Intermediate in Davenport. While not required, this sharing is a way to generate new ideas.
And that's particularly important because other local districts are facing challenges that are similar to those of Bettendorf Middle School.
"There is dialogue amongst your staff, especially your teaching staff, regarding all the time we spend testing and analyzing the results," said Davenport Community School District Interim Superintendent Norbert Schuerman. "We are changing programs because of not doing as well in a specific program in terms of what we teach, and expect kids to be able to learn."
But he also said the law has brought positive changes. "NCLB has intensified the interest on the part of everyone to take a look at where our students are in terms of achievement, to try and do a better job," Schuerman said.
Davenport's Central High, North High, and the Kimberly Center are presently on the NCLB watch list.
In Rock Island, Grant Intensive Elementary and Lincoln Elementary are currently on the watch list. No Moline schools are on the watch list.
Although Moline is meeting the requirements of NCLB, the district sees some of the law's shortcomings, particularly in its focus on testing with special-needs students.
"We understand that the one test used to judge the progress of students with special needs certainly does not tell the whole picture of the student's progress from year to year," said Les Huddle, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Moline School District #40.
Sidebar: How Your Representatives Voted On No Child Left Behind, 2001
U.S. Senator Charles Grassley - Yes
U.S. Senator Tom Harkin - Yes
U.S. Representative Jim Nussle - Yes
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin - Yes
U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald - Yes
U.S. Representative Lane Evans - Yes