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22 local school districts on federal watch list

Many say bar set too high

Education officials have labeled 22 school systems in the North region "in need of improvement," placing them on a watch list for failing to meet goals mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

The list of districts labeled low-performing cuts across socioeconomic lines and includes several affluent school systems, such as Newburyport, Boxford, and Lynnfield. This is the first year the state has named school districts to the federal watch list. In the past, only individual schools were targeted for improvement.

Of the 133 Massachusetts school districts on the list this year, 126 were cited because a single subgroup of students failed to make acceptable gains on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, state education officials must track the performance of the overall student population within each school and school system, and of 16 subgroups, including several ethnic groups, bilingual students, students with special needs, and children who receive free or reduced-price lunch and are therefore considered economically disadvantaged.

In their annual evaluations of local schools and districts, state officials also must consider test participation rates, attendance, and graduation rates to determine whether students are making "adequate yearly progress" as defined by the law.

Schools and districts that fall short of expectations in any subgroup or in English or math for two consecutive years end up on the watch list and must take action to improve student performance. Just over one-fifth of the state's 1,860 schools, or 384, were placed on the federal list this month, up from 208 a year ago.

The surging number concerns many educators throughout the North region, who noted that the state's students have historically earned high marks on other measures. In recent weeks, Governor Mitt Romney and Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll have praised SAT and MCAS scores.

Several of the area's leading educators criticized the federal mandates, noting that some of the state's highest achieving districts -- including Weston and Shrewsbury, which rank among the state's top 36 schools for overall MCAS performance -- were placed on the federal watch list this year.

"Rather than call it the 'No Child Left Behind Act,' they should call it the 'No Principal Left Standing Act' because the demand is that you're going to make every youngster in your school proficient in math and English," said Everett Superintendent Frederick F. Foresteire. "And the expectation is that you'll do it without funding. The law has never been properly funded. It's one thing to put demands on a district, quite another to be as hypocritical as the No Child Left Behind Act is."

Nicholas P. Kostan, superintendent of Lynn's public schools -- the largest school system in the North region with more than 14,000 students -- said the federal mandates are too simplistic to accurately measure student performance, a criticism that has been voiced by educators across the nation.

"Massachusetts consistently ranks at the top of the list in terms of student achievement on the SAT and other national tests, so when some of the finest school systems in the state are on this federal watch list, what is that telling us?" Kostan asked.

Newburyport, one of the region's more affluent communities, was labeled in need of improvement even though the district fared well overall on MCAS testing because two subgroups of students -- economically disadvantaged students and children with special needs -- failed to keep pace. The district educates 43 students who receive free or reduced-price lunch, and 112 who are enrolled in special education programs.

"I do think that the goal of getting every child in the United States to a level of proficiency by 2014 is a very lofty goal, but there is a certain lack of reality in that," said Mary Murray, who oversees a 2,500-student district in Newburyport. "It's a statistical impossibility. I think as we go along, we're going to see more and more schools with student subgroups who are not making adequate progress."

Of the 384 Massachusetts schools that failed to make the grade this year, 44 are in the North region.

In a majority of those schools, the overall student body fared well on MCAS, but a single subgroup of students fell short of expectations in math or English for two consecutive years. This is the least severe of the federal designations.

"These schools basically need to start looking within themselves at what changes should be made and what resources they have available to them to improve the performance of those students who failed to make adequate progress," said Heidi Perlman, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Only one elementary school in the North region -- Sewell-Anderson in Lynn -- has failed to meet federal benchmarks for four years, and must now take "corrective action," including overhauling curriculum and staff.

"We plan to address issues relative to curriculum and teacher training," Kostan said. "We conducted an internal panel review, to identi-fy the school's strengths and weaknesses, and plan to use those findings to move forward and make substantive changes, particularly with regard to math instruction."

In Chelsea, the only urban district in the state that was not placed on the watch list this year, educators are celebrating their strong record of improvement, including strides made in literacy.

Today, third-grade reading levels in Chelsea are at their highest point since the state began tracking literacy skills in 1997, according to MCAS scores. Roughly 50 percent of the district's third-graders are proficient readers, meaning they are able to understand the basic meaning of a story, identify factual details, and make simple inferences based on the text.

"This district has made huge leaps, a great deal of progress," said Thomas S. Kingston, superintendent of Chelsea's 5,678-student school system. "Every one of our elementary schools made adequate yearly progress. It speaks to the high expectations we have of our students."

Kingston said he is confident that students at Chelsea High School, the Clark Avenue Middle School, and the Williams Middle School will make marked improvements "by the end of the next two-year cycle."

Each of those schools was placed on the federal watch list this year for not making enough progress with a particular subgroup of students. At the middle schools, it was the special education students who failed to clear the bar in math; at the high school, it was white students who didn't make adequate progress, in both math and English.

Meanwhile, other school systems in the region are still analyzing the data in an effort to determine what needs to be done to bolster student achievement among some subgroups.

"It's something we're going to have to jump into in the coming weeks," said Beverly Superintendent James Hayes. "We will likely have to direct additional resources to our special education and economically disadvantaged students."

"We are already putting a lot of effort into math instruction, particularly word problems and questions that require students to look at patterns and make judgments," Hayes said. "Our plan is to look at the specific data to see where we need to refine what we're doing."

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at bbuote@globe.com

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