By Christen Reuter

Globe Staff Writer

Celia Mitchell's experience with children has taught her that not all can fit into the same mold.

A parent and former teacher, she said children cannot be forced to learn at the same pace. That truism among educators makes many wary of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates certain levels of academic performance for every child in the country.

Next year, if more children do not have better test scores in reading and math at Joplin High School, each of the middle schools and West Central Elementary, the schools could begin to face consequences set by the federal government.

"But kids are not all equal or on the same level," said Mitchell, who has a child attending a Joplin middle school. "That is like saying everyone has to play football or be a computer whiz. They can't do it.

"It is unrealistic and unfair."

Learning-disabled, poor, black and Hispanic students, as federally defined subgroups, in Joplin schools were among those who failed to make "adequate yearly progress" throughout the district in the latest round of state testing.

Under the federal law, enacted in January 2002, each state determines its own standards for "adequate yearly progress" in communication arts and mathematics. Missouri uses the results of its annual Missouri Assessment Program tests.

The results of those tests place students in one of five categories: Step One, Progressing, Nearing Proficient, Proficient and Advanced. Under Missouri's formula, students who score in the Proficient or Advanced categories are considered to have made "adequate yearly progress."

Last year, Missouri students in the third, seventh and 11th grades took communication-arts tests, and those in the fourth, eighth and 10th grades took math tests.

Under the federal legislation, students are divided into subgroups and required to make progress in reading and math. Of the seven groups found throughout the Joplin district, three made the required progress in communication arts and five did so in math on last year's MAP tests.

While the performance of the students as a whole also counts in the program, schools and school districts are held accountable for the performance of each of the subgroups. If one group fails, the entire system is deemed as not making adequate progress.

Passing grades

Under the federal guidelines, schools are considered to have made adequate progress if each of the subgroups had at least 19.4 percent of its students performing at a proficient level in communication arts on the 2002-03 MAP tests. The ratio for math is 9.3 percent of the students. The same applies to the total student population. And, those mandated percentages will rise over the next several years.

Among the requirements for "adequate yearly progress" is that 95 percent of the students eligible in each subgroup must be tested.

Of the 524 school districts in Missouri, 317 did not make adequate progress, based on the 2002-03 MAP scores, according to figures from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"This is like a fast train that just blows by you and you are supposed to get in front of it," said Joplin Superintendent Jim Simpson.

Several area school districts did make adequate progress. Avilla, Lamar and Verona met the math requirements, but not communication arts. Mount Vernon, Pierce City, Sarcoxie and Westview met both requirements.

The categories that Joplin students fall into are: black, Hispanic, students with disabilities, those who receive free and reduced-price lunches, those with no response to the ethnicity question, and white. The seventh category is the total student population.

The groups that did not make the required progress overall in the district in communication arts were blacks, Hispanics, students with disabilities, and those receiving free and reduced-price lunches. Those not making adequate progress in math were black and Hispanic students.

Other districts

Neither the Carthage nor Webb City school districts made the required progress.

Enough students were present in the Carthage district to establish subgroups for Hispanics, whites, those receiving free and reduced-price lunches, students with disabilities, and those with limited English proficiency.

Overall, those who failed to make the necessary progress in communication arts were Hispanics, those in the lunch category, those with learning disabilities and those with limited English proficiency failed to make the necessary progress in communication arts.

In math, students with disabilities failed to make the required progress. Also, not enough of the Hispanic students were tested in math for the district to be given a passing grade.

Webb City students were divided into groups for white students, those in the lunch category, and those with learning disabilities. In communication arts and math, the students with learning disabilities failed to make the required progress.

Size matters

In October, the state will provide an analysis of the test scores that tells districts, question by question, how their students performed. Simpson said this will help Joplin teachers identify problem areas.

Schools and districts must have at least 30 students who fall into one of the categories in order to consider that category for "adequate yearly progress."

"The larger schools or districts are more likely to have a higher number of those groups present," said Bert Schulte, assistant commissioner for the Division of School Improvement in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "The more subgroups they have accountability for, the more opportunity there is not to make AYP (adequate yearly progress)."

Mitchell, the Joplin woman, said it will be impossible for districts to meet the goals established by the federal government without extra funding. Because of budget problems throughout the nation, many schools have seen money from states cut.

"The government recently asked for $65 billion to go to Iraq," Mitchell said. "Imagine what schools could do with even half of that."

One for all

Simpson said only a handful of students who do not perform well on the MAP tests could take away progress made by thousands of other students.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires that all children be proficient in reading and math by 2014. To expect each child to perform at a level of proficiency is a commendable, but unrealistic, goal, Simpson said.

"This becomes similar to asking 100 percent of the population in America to run a marathon by 2014 and no one can not finish," Simpson said. "Many can train and try, but there are going to be some who will not make it."

Simpson said he also questions the reasoning behind requiring that students with disabilities perform at the same level as those who are not disabled.

"If you are a special-education student, then that means you have a disability and need extra help," Simpson said.

The law also requires each state to develop new, annual tests in reading and math for grades three through eight to help measure students' progress.

Consequences

The consequences for schools that fail to make the necessary steps forward fall only on those receiving federal Title I funds. All of Joplin's schools except Stapleton Elementary receive those funds, which are for programs for low-income children who are at risk of failing in school.

After two consecutive years of failing to make adequate progress, a school must offer students the option of transferring to another school within the district.

After a third consecutive year, a school has to offer tutoring for students. And, after five years, the school may be forced to replace personnel or extend the school year.

The designated progress each school must make will continue until 2014, when all of the nation's students will be expected to perform proficiently. In 2005, for example, 38.8 percent of Missouri students in each of the subgroups will be expected to be proficient in communication arts, 31.1 percent in math.

Other states

Each state is allowed to designate its own method for determining "adequate yearly progress." Kansas, for instance, required that 46.8 percent of its pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade perform at a proficient level in math, and 51.2 percent in communication arts, said Kelly Spurgeon, education program consultant for the Kansas Department of Education.

In the ninth through 12th grades, 29 percent of the students are to perform proficiently in math, 44 percent in communication arts.

Kansas measures student results on the Kansas State Assessments, a standardized test similar to the MAP. Kansas uses a scale of Unsatisfactory at the bottom, followed by Basic, Proficient, Advanced and Exemplary.

A preliminary count of the 303 districts in Kansas showed that 43 did not make adequate progress, according to the state department. Among the districts were Labette County and Coffeyville.

In Oklahoma, the state uses the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Tests as the benchmark for academic performance. As of June, the state combined all of its accountability measures into a single Oklahoma Performance Index, which has been accepted by the federal government for determining overall compliance with the rules of the No Child Left Behind Act. The index includes statistics such as attendance and graduation figures, though 80 percent of a school's rating is based on test scores.

Of Oklahoma's 1,801 official "school sites," 51 were placed on the state's improvement list, the equivalent of failing to make "adequate yearly progress," according to the State Department of Education. None of the schools were in the Four-State Area.

In Arkansas, 37 percent of the pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade were expected to have high marks on state standardized tests in literacy, and 34.18 percent in math, according to the Arkansas Department of Education's Web site.

In the sixth through eighth grades, the ratios are 25 percent in literacy and 22 percent in math. In the ninth through 12th grades, the ratios are 26 percent in literacy and 17.8 percent in math.

Of the 1,138 schools in Arkansas, 126 did not make adequate progress, said Charles Watson, federal liaison for the state Department of Education.

More testing

Theoretically, states could lower their requirements for adequate progress, said Schulte, the Missouri assistant education commissioner, but the 2014 milestone will not change. As required by the No Child Left Behind Act, all states must test third- through eighth-grade students annually in communication arts and math.

Currently in Missouri, students are tested once on those subjects at the elementary, junior high school and high school levels, Schulte said.

When the state creates its new assessment, the performance levels expected of Missouri's schools will change. But until then, the current expectations will remain in place.

This can mean bad news for some good school districts, Simpson said.

"This law takes good schools, and if they don't make AYP for two years, it allows their students to transfer," Simpson said. "For districts that take pride in their schools, believe in their schools and know they are working well, it will be hard to follow that stigma."

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