The number of Washington schools and districts on the federal "needs-improvement" list rose sharply again this year, part of the pattern...

Share story

The number of Washington schools and districts on the federal “needs-improvement” list rose sharply again this year, part of the pattern critics predicted when Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act back in 2001.

The list has grown in all but one of the past six years, and now includes 628 schools and 57 districts, according to preliminary results released Thursday. That’s more than double the 280 schools on last year’s list, and almost twice the number of districts, which was 30.

Sixty-four schools have been on the list long enough that their districts, under the law, are supposed to restructure them. In Seattle, the African American Academy and Aki Kurose Middle Schools are in that category. In Highline, so are Cascade Middle and Chinook Middle.

One big factor in this year’s jump: The test-score targets went up, as they do every fourth year. For the past three years, for example, elementary schools were judged as making “adequate” progress in reading if 64.2 percent of students passed that subject on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). This year, the bar was 76.1 percent.

Most Read Local Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction compiles the “needs improvement” list, but that doesn’t mean that Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson likes it. Bergson is among the educators who support the goals of No Child Left Behind but lambastes its methods.

The law focuses too much on punishment, she said, offers too little support and labels schools as “failing” even when they have made great strides forward.

“It makes it very easy to lose,” she said, “and very hard to win.”

Bergeson said she fears the public will conclude that schools and districts on the list are failing, when she says that’s often not the case.

On Tuesday, for example, she lauded Chief Sealth High in Seattle for its double-digit gains in reading, writing and math on the WASL. But Sealth also is on the federal “needs-improvement” list, in part because one group of students — Latinos — fell short of the goal in one subject — math.

“We’re sending the wrong message to the community through this federal law,” Bergeson said.

Schools must meet as many as 37 requirements to stay off the “needs-improvement list.”

They involve test scores, but also how many students take the tests. Elementary and middle schools also are judged on student-attendance rates, and high schools by their graduation rates.

Districts can face up to 111 requirements.

It takes two years to get on the list, and two years to get off. Four schools in Washington earned their way off the list this year, including Scriber Lake High in the Edmonds School District.

No Child Left Behind is the nickname for the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It covers everything from teacher qualifications to school safety. But its centerpiece is the requirement that schools and school districts ensure all students are proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Washington schools and districts are judged by how students do on the WASL. Other states use their own tests.

If they fall short, they can face an increasingly severe set of sanctions.

But those punishments apply only to schools and districts that receive money from the federal Title I program which provides money to schools and districts with a high percentage of low-income students.

For schools that don’t receive Title I dollars (which include high schools and middle schools in many districts) the not-enough-progress label is nothing more than a label.

In Highline, Chief Accountability Officer Alan Spicciati echoed Bergeson’s sentiments about No Child Left Behind.

“We know that we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We accept that challenge.”

But he said that the law doesn’t measure progress well.

Other tests, he said, show that students at Chinook Middle School make a year’s worth of progress every year. But because many start each year below grade level, they don’t pass the WASL, and that’s all that counts under No Child Left Behind.

Spicciati and Bergeson want the goals of the law to stay intact but say it needs a major overhaul to be fair and reasonable.

Bergeson, for example, proposes that the law judge schools by the progress they make, and that the federal government give schools more support to help them reach the law’s goals. At minimum, she said, the federal government should pay for the testing the law requires.

She also wants to find better ways to test many special-education students and students learning English who now, as required by No Child Left Behind, must take the WASL even though they have no chance of passing it.

Sealth Principal John Boyd said his staff continues to celebrate their WASL gains, despite the news Thursday that Sealth remains on the “needs-improvement” list.

“We have one group in one area that we really need to be concerned about,” he said. “For me, it’s less about being on the list, and more about what we are going to do for those kids.”

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com