Disaggregation is aggravation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TWO YEARS ago, I was one of about seven education writers who met with President Bush at the White House. He was promoting what became the No Child Left Behind Act, which he signed into law Jan. 8 last year.

At one point in the hour-long session, a reporter asked the president to comment on the proposed law's disaggregation of test data. "I can't even pronounce the word," said the leader of the Free World.

By now, I suspect he can. Disaggregation is what's causing the act to stagger under its own weight. Like so much else about the law, it's a great idea but staggeringly difficult to carry out.

The idea was no longer to let overall test data obscure the poor performance of minorities, children in special education and others, making it difficult to identify -- and address -- the achievement disparities between them and white, advantaged students.

No child would be left behind. In every school in the land, test results would be reported by economic background, race and ethnicity, English proficiency and disability, and all subgroups would have to make "adequate yearly progress" until every child in America would be "proficient" by 2013-2014. No student would be left untested.

On Friday, Maryland witnessed the first release of disaggregated scores from the new Maryland School Assessment. It helped greatly that the state (unlike some others) had been gathering data on the subgroups for years, but the task of electronically charting the scores for 1,388 public schools was daunting. At a briefing for reporters Thursday, Gary Heath, the testing chief, said 50,000 pages of data have accumulated -- and that's just in the first year of the federal law.

Consider: In addition to the eight subgroups, the entire school gets a score. For example, a third grade in a school large enough to enroll American Indians, Asians, blacks, whites, Hispanics, those with limited English, those in special education and kids eligible for free lunches is aiming at 18 targets -- nine in reading and nine in math.

If any one of those groups misses the target (established by the state Board of Education last month), that school isn't making adequate yearly progress, and some fool reporter will write that it is failing.

No wonder educators from California to Maine are howling. No wonder the people who cover education are as confused as many of the so-called experts. "You are feeling our pain," a State Department of Education official told reporters at a briefing Thursday.

Yet there are those who say No Child Left Behind provided a necessary jolt to education.

"We're hearing from teachers that it's forced them to pay closer attention to what they're teaching and to whom," says Jeanne Brennan of the Education Trust, a Washington-based organization devoted to raising standards in the nation's schools and colleges.

What I've described above is only the beginning. There are rules and subrules, and subrules to the subrules.

For example, to "ensure reliability," Maryland cuts some slack if a subgroup comprises a small number of kids. Let's say only 10 special-education kids take a school's fifth-grade reading test. That's statistically unreliable, increasing the margin of error inherent in almost every measurement system.

So Maryland widens the target for small groups. It's called a "confidence interval." Those special-education kids can fail to meet the statewide standard but actually pass the test by scoring in the confidence interval.

What does it all mean to parents? In the first year, not much more than the old MSPAP.

They'll get a packet before the end of next month explaining it all in simple terms, or so the state promises. They'll also get a report on how their children did on a nationally normed test given in March along with the new Maryland School Assessment.

It will be the first time Maryland kids will be able to compare their performance with peers elsewhere in the nation, and that's progress.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Education Department (which Republicans wanted to dismantle not so very long ago) has launched a public-relations campaign for No Child Left Behind, featuring statements about its importance from the likes of Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston.

As schools open across the land, the act needs all the help it can get.

The annual Phi Delta Kappa poll, released last week, found only a quarter of the public considers itself well informed about NCLB, and fewer than one in five has a favorable impression of it.

Disaggregation has led to aggravation.

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