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Finishing First 

While grown-ups worry about standardized tests and school funding, two first-graders show education's not that simple

Page 4 of 5

No Child Left Behind sets the goals for schools to improve, but how to achieve them is left to individual states. For instance, the federal law requires schools to adopt stricter standards for passing a student to the next grade. In Georgia, third-graders must pass standardized tests to be promoted to fourth grade -- regardless of their grades or performance during the year.

It's difficult to find anyone who would disagree with the premise of No Child Left Behind. Improving the quality of education for all children is an inherently popular idea.

What's up for debate is the means of improving it.

Because it schools primarily lower-income children, Cary Reynolds gets money from the federal government, although that's just a fraction of its overall budget. It has been named a "needs improvement" school. Only 48 percent of the students perform at their grade level on standardized tests.

Cary Reynolds Principal Melanie Bilda says she's concerned about the effect Bush's legislation will have on her school. The low percentage of students who pass the standards tests is discouraging for teachers. Bilda says she's devoting a lot of time to "just trying to keep their spirits up."

Next year, the third-graders at Cary Reynolds will have to pass standardized tests in reading and math if they want to graduate to the next grade. With more than half the students already failing, Bilda has a hard time believing that No Child Left Behind will proceed as planned. "I really can't imagine that 52 percent of our students are going to be held back," she says.

Cary Reynolds' failure could also affect schools like Vanderlyn.

It's possible that, in a budget crunch, school districts will have to divert funds from schools like Vanderlyn -- where most students ace the standardized tests -- to pay for improvements at schools like Cary Reynolds. At Vanderlyn only 3 percent of the students scored below average on standardized reading tests, while 87 percent scored above grade level.

While resources may shift within the district to give more help to Cary Reynolds, transferring students out of Cary Reynolds -- as No Child Left Behind permits parents to do -- might create a whole new set of problems.

To prevent high-achieving schools from becoming overcrowded, parents who want to transfer their child from a low-performing school to one that's doing well are given a limited number of choices. In some Georgia school districts, there aren't enough resources to offer the federally mandated transfer at all. So far, none of the parents with kids at Cary Reynolds have requested a transfer.

Bilda admits she doesn't know much about how No Child Left Behind ultimately will affect Cary Reynolds. She says she has no idea how many parents might choose to transfer their students out of the school in the coming years.

Perhaps that's because, as Bilda points out, parents aren't clear on the implications of No Child Left Behind either. Parents are informed by letter of the opportunity to transfer their child or request tutoring. But since some parents aren't able to read in English or in their native language, it's doubtful they fully understand the choices they're offered.

Even if they do understand, there's a disconnect between the perceived quality of a specific school and the school's actual quality. Parents asked to rate their child's school generally find the quality of education favorable. In a poll conducted by the University of Georgia last year, parents gave their children's school an average grade of about a B-minus.

The real flaw of No Child Left Behind is that it ignores what sociologists and common sense have been telling us for years: Improving troubled schools has less to do with what goes on in the classroom than what goes on at home.

But it's easier to address school performance than to tackle poverty. Accomplishing the type of change that is needed to improve students' test scores would require not just a change in the education system, but a change in the way many American lives are lived at home, according to Robert Evans, a school consultant based in Massachusetts and author of The Human Side of School Change.

"We can predict a kid's score ... by just knowing the zip code," says Evans, who works with schools throughout the country on implementing reform plans. "We can see that schools are important, but they're not the most important factor."

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