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Feds: Pa. can’t give special treatment to charter schools

“Pennsylvania is obligated to make AYP decisions for all schools and hold all schools to the same standards,” states the federal order, signed by Deborah S. Delisle, assistant U.S. education secretary. The order, dated Nov. 19, was released by the state Nov. 21.

The federal government ordered the state Department of Education, by January, to recompute and publicize charter schools’ 2011-12 AYP grades in the same manner as public schools.

The U.S. Department of Education has final authority over any changes in how states grade public schools, school districts, and any other “local education agency” under No Child Left Behind, a federal law.

The federal government’s rejection of Tomalis’ methodology was praised by Lehigh Valley superintendents reached Nov. 21 and by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which had filed a legal brief with the federal agency opposing the change.

“It is clear the secretary made that change to make charter school performance look better and the feds said, ‘You can’t do that,’” Bethlehem Superintendent Joseph Roy said.

Stuart Knade, chief counsel for the state school boards association, said he was happy the federal agency agreed with his legal argument that the change not only unfairly inflated charter results, it did not follow federal law. “We laid out our objection to the federal government,” he said, “and it looks like it was taken to heart.”

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Under No Child Left Behind, reading and math scores from state tests administered in grades 3-8 and 11 are used to calculate whether a school and school district achieved AYP. Other factors include test participation rates and attendance and graduation rates.

Until this year, the results of traditional public schools and public charter schools had been counted the same way.

In measuring individual schools, the scores of each grade level are reviewed. A school achieves AYP if a percentage of its students in each tested grade scores proficient or advanced through straight or curved scores. Student scores are further broken down by student demographics. If at least one demographic group in any grade levels fails, the whole school fails.

But a school district is measured on a broader scale. Tomalis gave that broader scale to charter schools, stating the 1997 charter school law calls a charter school a “local educational agency.”

Under the school district method, AYP is measured in grade spans: 3-5 for elementary schools, 6-8 for middle schools, and 9-12 for high schools (though only 11th-graders are tested). Only one of the three grade spans needs to hit the testing targets for a district to make AYP. For example, if the middle-schoolers make AYP but elementary and high school students do not, the whole district still makes AYP.

A Morning Call analysis found the rules change allowed a higher percentage of charter schools to make AYP in 2011-12 than they did in 2010-11, including 52 that had one or more grade spans that did not hit testing benchmarks.

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