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Don't Buy the Numbers

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How do you define a failing school?

Brookside Elementary is located in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood of split levels and tidy ranch homes, in Norwalk, Conn., a 50-minute train commute from New York. The building is airy, bright. Students' artwork and short stories decorate the walls, along with poster-size photos of the principal's beloved Red Sox stars. In the cafeteria - the one room where children have free choice on where to sit - races and sexes mix freely. The faculty is skilled and collegial. "The last time we had an opening for a teacher, other than a transfer from within the system, was two years ago," David Hay, the principal, said. "More than 400 applied."

It hardly seems the recipe for what we term a failing facility. But failing it is, and has been since the inception of No Child Left Behind. Most years, its roughly 500 students have not come close to achieving the proficiency levels set by the state in language arts, math or science, as determined by the Connecticut Mastery Test, the series of annual, standardized state exams issued in conjunction with NCLB.

But that's separate from a different, and more critical question: Is Brookside, though failing, nonetheless doing its job?

Last September, as they do at the start of every school year, Brookside's kindergarten teachers issued their incoming students what they term an academic readiness test - to see, in short, if the children were sufficiently prepared to begin school. The test consisted of eight questions, four of which were these: Can you spell your first name? Do you know how to count to ten? Do you know the difference between an upper case and lower-case letter? Can you trace four basic shapes?

Thirty-eight percent failed one or more of the eight questions.

This would not happen in the four wealthy, predominantly white towns that ring Norwalk, a city of 84,000 far more diverse.

There is little mystery to Brookside's poor showing. Fifty-nine percent of its students are sufficiently impoverished to qualify for free or reduced-fee school lunches. According to Mr. Hay, "Maybe a couple of parents in the entire school earn a hundred thousand." Fifty-eight percent of the children are Hispanic, 17 percent are African American, 22 percent are white. The school has more than its share of transient families, single-parent homes and English-as-second-language learners (parents as well as children). In many homes, there are no books, no news magazines, no newspapers. Too often, even the students' dreams are small. At New Canaan High, ranked No. 1 in the state in a town where 50 percent of the households earn $200,000 or more annually, the goal is Harvard. At Brookside, five miles away in Norwalk, where 33 percent of households earn $40,000 or less, it's the local community college, to learn a trade.

Is it fair, then, to expect Brookside students to achieve at the same level as New Canaan students on the state standardized tests? If one group enters kindergarten at grade level and the other enters behind, and both are required to reach the same performance level, then which has the more difficult task? The true judge of a school's performance should not be its raw test score, but the distance it moves its students forward.

As part of research for a book, I spent the 2010-11 school year in a Brookside fifth-grade classroom, chronicling the struggles of a failing school, and the pressures brought upon it by No Child Left Behind. That year, one Brookside girl entered fifth grade at a low third-grade level in her writing skills - sadly, a situation far from uncommon at her school. By early March, the teacher and the school's literacy specialist had advanced her to a mid-fourth grade level. That's a significant gain: more than a year of growth in two-thirds of a school term. But since the standardized exam tested her at a fifth-grade level, she was judged to be failing. The teacher and literacy specialist received no credit for the girl's achievement. Nor did the school.

Mr. Hay, the principal, tried to downplay the importance of Brookside's test scores. There was no getting away from them, of course. Too many consequences were tied to them, ranging from lost federal funding to required teacher retraining to mass firings to a district-wide takeover by the state. There was, however, one set of numbers that he looked upon with pride.

In 2006, 26.4 percent of Brookside's fifth graders had scored Below Basic - in other words, remedial - in reading, while just 13.9 percent had ranked as Advanced. By 2011, those numbers had shifted, with 17.5 percent scoring Below Basic, while 15.9 percent had proved Advanced. With writing, the difference in scores was dramatic. In 2006, 6.9 percent were Below Basic and 13.9 percent rated as Advanced. In 2011, not one fifth grader scored Below Basic, and 22.7 percent qualified as Advanced.

"Sometimes I look at job openings - not that I'm going anywhere," Mr. Hay said, seated one morning at his desk, "and I'll say, what kind of school is that? I'll click onto [a state Department of Education database] and say, hmm, they have two hundred fifty kids - two hundred forty-five who are white, two Hispanics and three blacks - and they're running ninety-six percent on the [state standardized test]. And I'm going, hmm, I wonder what that life would be like. I've always said, our teachers in this building do such a great job of taking their clay and molding it and getting success. It's different when kids are coming with everything. Basically, they do well, they score high. But I always wonder, if their teachers didn't show up, would those kids still score high? Our teachers have to show up."

Ron Berler is the author of Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America's 45,000* Failing Public Schools.