By Christen Reuter
Globe Staff Writer
At the end of each school year, Susan Hirsch assigns grades to her students that sum up their work. The single letter she writes beside each name will have a lasting impact, so she does not take the job lightly.
"There are so many factors to take into consideration, like whether they took part in the class or whether they have done their homework," said the teacher at Memorial Middle School in Joplin.
There is not a single assignment or test that determines what or how well a student has learned for the year, yet Hirsch and other local teachers said that seems to be the conclusion that has been reached by the federal government and the state.
President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act has mandated dramatic changes in education. It requires, among many things, a designated amount of improvement on each state's annual assessment of math and communication-arts skills.
Those schools that receive Title I funds, provided by the federal government for programs for low-income children, will be punished if they continually fail to make the adequate progress required of them.
Under the federal law, each state must move all of its students into a proficient level in communication arts and math by 2014.
The progress made by Missouri students will be determined each year by their performance on the Missouri Assessment Program, the state's annual assessment exam.
Many educators have become concerned about this new pressure. Hirsch, an eighth-grade math teacher, questioned how the government can point the finger of blame solely at the nation's schools.
She said conditions that are beyond a teacher's control, such as a child's home life or parental values, also affect the test scores.
Hirsch said, for example, that if parents do not set an example for their children that shows the importance of school, those students may never take their education seriously.
"We can try hard in the classroom, but there are so many other factors," Hirsch said.
Sheri Francis, also a teacher at Memorial Middle School, said teachers and schools must be held accountable.
But, she said, a year in which Missouri is facing budget crunches is a poor time to implement these reforms.
Because of budget cutbacks, the Joplin School District closed its Transitional Learning Center, a temporary program for students of all ages who had behavioral problems. Francis said that move could have an impact on test scores.
"One student can keep me from teaching 31," Francis said.
Francis said a single exam might not provide the best indication as to how well a student is learning. Because one test means so much to schools and districts, the state, administrators and teachers have put pressure on students to perform well.
"I have personally seen students almost physically sick because of test-taking anxiety," Francis said.
The federal government has divided the student population into several subgroups that also must make adequate progress, including black and Hispanic students and those with learning disabilities.
If just one subgroup does not make the required progress, the entire district is considered to have come up short.
David Stephens, principal at Carl Junction Junior High School, said the scores could produce a wrong impression of a school district.
"The rationale has to do with wanting to make sure schools are doing the best they can to meet the needs of a diverse population made up of all kinds of kids," Stephens said. "But to isolate one subgroup and make that a reflection of the district is not an accurate reflection."
Striving to ensure that all of the nation's children are receiving an excellent education is praiseworthy, Stephens said. But, he said, it is unrealistic to believe that all students will be proficient.
"No Child Left Behind is noble," Stephens said. "It mandates things for a district, though, without providing the resources or funding to get that done. That puts us in a frustrating situation."
By Christen Reuter