Thursday, March 15, 2007

Is a top school forcing out low-performing students?

Melba Newsome:

Documents obtained by TIME and interviews with former students, parents and school employees strongly suggest that Myers Park has had an unofficial policy of ridding itself of underperforming students during Anderson's tenure from 2002 to 2005 and perhaps beyond, by using tactics including listing dropouts as out-of-state transfers. The school district is currently investigating the matter. Anderson did not respond to requests for an interview, but denied any wrongdoing in an e-mail: "My philosophy was to make all decisions in the best interests of the students we served." Anderson now consults to the school district and heads a dropout prevention program — an ironic choice, if the allegations prove to be correct.

With expansive tree-lined streets and stately million-dollar homes, Myers Park is one of Charlotte's most desirable addresses. Its superb high school, which offers the International Baccalaureate program and a rich menu of Advanced Placement classes, is a big part of its appeal. The school serves 3,000 students, 66% of them white, 22% black and 4% hispanic. North Carolina designated it a School of Distinction; Lloyd Wimberley, who headed the school from 1996-2002, was named North Carolina Principal of the Year in 2002; and the school has consistently ranked in the top 20 on Newsweek magazine's list of best high schools in the country.

However, like many other high-flying schools with a substantial minority and low-income population, Myers Park has been under increasing pressure to close the achievement gap between students that are white and black, rich and poor. In 2006, only 51% of its black students performed at levels III/IV — proficient and above — on state exams, compared with 90% of white. Under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, schools that fail to close such a gap are declared "failing schools" — no matter how well the majority are doing — and can face a lost of federal Title 1 funding for low-income students.

In the current era of school accountability, there are other pressures to keep scores uniformly high. State test scores are routinely published in news accounts and have a considerable influence on local property values. In addition, many states and cities offer financial incentives for teachers and principals at schools that score high. "Principals are desperate to provide good news and reassure their communities that they are in good shape," says former principal Wimberley.

In this atmosphere, there's a big incentive for schools to artificially inflate their achievement data. Earlier this year, an investigation found that scores on state tests at the elite Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden, N.J. had been manipulated. Investigators concluded that there was "enormous pressure" from the superintendent on down "to generate high test scores."

North Carolina and Charlotte offer monetary incentives of up to $1500 to teachers and even larger bonuses for principals whose schools meet or exceed certain performance criteria. Among those criteria are high school graduation rates, a factor that should, in theory, encourage schools to keep kids in school, not push underachievers out. But school documents obtained by TIME suggest that Myers Park found a way around this: reporting that students who had dropped out had instead transferred out of the district.

'No Child' target is called out of reach


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