Every year, Latino, English language learners, and low-income students are tested in local schools, and every year they fall behind the Asian and white students in their class. Due to their lack of English skills, these students often are handicapped from the start, and without costly extra attention, often struggle to meet academic targets and continue to drag down a school's test scores.
Local school administrators would like to see more funding to get these struggling students up to speed. They also want some modifications of the "one size fits all" approach of the No Child Left Behind testing system passed by Congress six years ago.
They believe the legislation is a good first step, but only the beginning in a long process to improve underperforming students' scores.
Some local schools, including Castro elementary on Escuela Avenue, have struggled to meet all sthe NCLB standards, and do not have the funding to provide additional programs for students who are falling behind. There is no extra money or incentives under the legislation for these schools. If the school continues to fail to meet the standards, the state increases punishments for school and districts, and can cut funds.
"We are trying to provide Nordstrom service on K-Mart prices," Craig Goldman, chief financial officer for the Mountain View Whisman School District, said in an interview this summer.
President George W. Bush proposed the bipartisan legislation, and Congress first enacted it in 2002 to make schools, teachers and districts more accountable.
The goal is to have every student score "proficient" or above on standardized tests by 2014. The scores in English and math are one of the components used to establish Academic Yearly Progress, or AYP, which ranks students as "basic," "proficient" or "advanced."
Students' scores are categorized into subgroups, according to race and class. If a school does not meet all benchmarks across all subgroups for two years in a row, it receives the equivalent of a failing grade and becomes a Program Improvement School.
Although the federal government passed the legislation, each state sets its own goals, and monitors the schools. California started small, but is now expecting students to improve their scores on California Standards Tests (known as STAR tests) by more than 10 percent each year.
Local educators say the legislation sets ideal goals. But, despite the much higher expectations, neither the state nor federal government provides schools with enough resources, incentives or funding to meet these expectations.
"When there is no funding, how are schools supposed to implement change," Mountain View High School Principal Keith Moody said.
Where are the incentives?
Following years of failing to reach its goals, Castro school proudly left the Program Improvement category after students substantially improved test scores for two consecutive years.
District administrators started celebrating immediately, sending out press releases to notify the community and parents about the students' accomplishments.
However, the state did not reward the students, according to administrators. Eventually, Maurice Ghysels, superintendent of the Mountain View Whisman School District, said he had to "apologize for lack of recognition," and the district treated the students to ice cream.
The legislation is "very punitive," said Gloria Valdez, an elementary school teacher in the district.
"If you make your target you get no reward. If you miss your target you are punished," Ghysels added in an interview this summer.
Some educators said there are more incentives for districts that are already meeting the standards.
This was the first year Mountain View-Los Altos High School District came close to not meeting all the NCLB standards, with low-income students barely making the benchmark. The district's three high schools are primarily funded by local property taxes, and have more funds than state-funded schools such as Castro.
Possibly as a consequence, the high school district has traditionally scored higher on the standardized tests. Trustee Phil Faillace said better test scores enhances the district's reputation and keeps property taxes high.
"That is an incentive to do well," he added.
A call for funding
Without additional funding, Castro and other district schools with a large percentage of English language learners are unlikely to get the help they need to improve their test scores over the long run.
"It is impossible for a student who speaks little or no English to increase at a rate that is proficient," Principal Judy Crates said.
The task becomes even more difficult without proper funding. Under NCLB, schools with a relatively large percentage of low-income students receive Title I funding in exchange for meeting federal guidelines. But schools do not receive more money once they fall behind.
"We are a winning team with this funding," Ghysels said. "Could you imagine what we could do with more?"
Crates said the school is "redirecting its small amount of funds to improve student performance." But, she added, "We were already doing this."
"Would any business try to increase sales without putting more money into marketing?" Crates said.
With nearly 40 percent of California schools in the doghouse of Program Improvement, the NCLB program simply is not working, Moody added.
Although Mountain View High is still meeting standards, many schools could use new text books and teacher training programs to help catch up. Moody compared the goals set under NCLB to an athlete trying to increase the number of push-ups without any money to hire a trainer or buy weights.
"Knowing you can only do 20 doesn't create a plan to do 50 push-ups," he said.
Even with adequate funding, administrators worry that the leap in benchmarks is too steep.
Barry Groves, superintendent of the Mountain View-Los Altos district, said the legislation should be based on a growth model, meaning each subgroup or school must improve by a certain percentage each year. This is especially important, he said, for subgroups that continue to fall behind, such as English language learners.
"If you did well on the test, then you wouldn't be in that group," Groves said of English language learners.
About 20 students at each school in the elementary district moved up two progress levels last year, according to Crates. But, some of them still lag behind NCLB standards. The district honored these students during a board meeting.
But Crates said that, ideally, the national legislation would also reward these students for substantially increasing their scores, instead of punishing them for not meeting benchmarks.
"This would be an incredibly difficult task, but there is no recognition for this," Crates said.