Ruling will push schools to offer more transfers

Federal regulators are holding North Carolina to tougher academic requirements that likely will force more public schools to face penalties for failing to meet No Child Left Behind goals.

The U.S. Education Department has rejected the state's requests not to count new reading exams this year for elementary and middle schools and to use a five-year graduation rate for high schools. This decision puts more schools at risk of being required to offer tutoring and to allow students to transfer elsewhere.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will see little effect because it anticipated the tougher ratings. In January, CMS let 19,000 students at 33 high-poverty schools apply to switch schools in August. About 2,700 accepted the offer.

But districts such as Union could face the disruption of letting students transfer mid-year, after reading scores are released in the fall. Union has three elementary schools serving 1,836 students that would be able to transfer if reading scores are low.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind program, schools must evaluate students in groups according to race, family income, English proficiency and other factors. If any group doesn't measure up on state reading and math tests, the school is considered deficient.

CMS is slightly smaller than Wake but has more high-poverty schools. Since 2004, it has had to offer thousands of transfers each year, far more than any other N.C. district. To avoid the disruption of shuffling students after test scores come out, CMS offers the transfers during the January application period, even if it's unclear whether a high-poverty school will land on the penalty list. Most families, in CMS and statewide, choose to stay put.

The wrinkle this year is that the state used new end-of-grade exams in reading. It's expected that the passing rates will be lower on the new exams. In 2006, new math tests led to more students failing.

The federal decision is “quite disruptive” but hardly a surprise, given that the feds said no to a similar request in 2006, said Marion Bish, Cabarrus County Schools' director of federal programs.

Cabarrus doesn't have any schools at risk this year, she said, but did in 2006, when the tougher math scores kicked in. Letting students transfer in the middle of a school year means shuffling classes and even teachers, she said. “You have capacity issues, you have busing issues – it's just difficult to do in the middle of the year.”