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State of Illinois - Governor Blagojevich 

News Clips

September 26, 2003 to October 2, 2003

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  1. U.S. education chief warns of crisis for poor children / Beacon News
  2. Schools rarely labeled persistently dangerous / Beacon News
  3. Teachers protest charter school expansion / Boston Globe
  4. Frist rallies support for school vouchers / CNN.com
  5. Comparing Schools' Progress Difficult / Washington Post
  6. 'Dangerous' school list irks some officials / CNN.com
  7. Vouchers Find Favor Outside GOP  / Los Angeles Times
  8. Parents petition Hinckley-Big Rock on evolution / Beacon News
  9. School Desegregation Case Ends After 26 Years / Los Angeles Times
  10. Schools are skipping P.E. / Boston Globe
  11. Concise, Cogent, Contentious /Washington Post

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U.S. education chief warns of crisis for poor children  

By Ben Feller, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON The nation's top education official said Wednesday that many minority children are so badly served by public schools that their circumstances can be compared to apartheid.

Education Secretary Rod Paige used his back-to-school address to warn of an unrecognized educational crisis of disadvantaged students who are written off at school and unready for a complex world. He cited discouraging statistics about the performance of blacks and Hispanics on reading and math tests in high school and on college-entrance exams.

"Those who are unprepared will sit on the sidelines, confronting poverty, dead-end jobs and hopelessness," Paige said in a speech at the National Press Club. "They will find little choice and much despair. The well educated will live in a world of their own choosing; the poorly educated will wander in the shadows."

The majority of students falling behind are poor, and "effectively, the education circumstances for these students are not unlike a system of apartheid," Paige said.

In 2001, Paige, who grew up in segregated Mississippi, became the first black to serve as education secretary. He has chosen increasingly sharp words in promoting the education law that requires schools to expand standardized testing, improve teacher quality and break out student achievement figures by demographic groups, among other things.

Schools that get federal low-income aid but fail to consistently improve face penalties.

Paige praised many public schools for being the finest in the world, but he focused much of his comments on how an underachieving education system hurts the country. Paige also welcomed debate over the education law, yet criticized the resistance of "significant, powerful forces entrenched in the old ways, mired in self interest." He did not name them in his speech.

A spokesman for the nation's largest teachers' union said that "opposition and concern aren't coming from the status quo, but from the parents, communities and schools struggling" with the law.

Kathleen Lyons of the National Education Association added: "The reality is that there are groups of children whose progress is being inaccurately measured, and the consequences are huge. This has the potential of harming millions of children."

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Schools rarely labeled persistently dangerous  

Illinois safe? Critics say identification of crime-plagued schools is meaningless

By Ben Feller, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON Only 52 of the nation's 91,000 public schools are labeled persistently dangerous by their states, findings that allow students in those few schools to transfer to safer places but deny a similar option for tens of millions of other children.

The lack of a label does not mean a school is without crime, but rather that there is not enough to merit the designation. There were nearly 700,000 violent crimes in America's schools in 2000, the last year for which government numbers were available.

The new school year marks the first time that states must define and identify their most dangerous schools and let all students at those schools enroll elsewhere in their district. Most states have responded by declaring they have no schools fitting that description.

Forty-four states and the District of Columbia reported not a single unsafe school. The exceptions were Pennsylvania (28), Nevada (eight), New Jersey (seven), Texas (six), New York (two) and Oregon (one). The numbers may change after final state reviews or appeals.

At a time when campuses use a range of tools to halt crime, from metal detectors to full-time police officer, 99.9 percent of schools got passing safety grades, based on self-reported data.

"I don't think most parents would be surprised to find out that schools aren't persistently dangerous because they believe their schools are safe," said Jo Loss, mother of two public-school children in Castro Valley, Calif., and a leader of the state's PTA.

The order to designate unsafe schools is part of federal law designed to hold schools accountable and give students choices. But to some school advocates, the small number identified is so implausible it renders the ordered assessment meaningless.

"The states are sending a false sense of security to parents, and it creates a laxity among educators in terms of school safety," said Kenneth Trump, a national school safety consultant who has worked with officials in more than 35 states. "It's like a government Grade A stamp of approval saying everything is safe and fine."

To get the label in Washington state, for example, a 1,000-student school would have to expel three students per year for gun violations and 10 additional students per year for other violent offenses and that would have to happen for three straight years.

Washington's policy was purposely set high because of the "significant consequences of being defined as persistently dangerous," said Martin Mueller of the state's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Connecticut gives schools three years to fix problems.

"If they do not improve, then they can be named, but we are not automatically condemning a school," said Thomas Murphy of the state's Education Department.

Most states have determined that to merit the dangerous label, schools must meet at least one threshold, such as student gun violations or expulsions based on violent behavior. Typically, states tied the minimum number of incidents to enrollment requiring a higher number at larger schools and they only count schools that show trouble over two years or three years.

The states also based their definitions on the most serious crimes: murder, arson, robbery, kidnapping. A dangerous environment, not just unacceptable behavior, is the target, said Bill Modzeleski, school safety director for the Education Department.

"When you see what Congress said in the legislation, then clearly there probably aren't as many persistently dangerous schools as the public may believe," he said.

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Teachers protest charter school expansion  

By Amy F. Bailey, Associated Press Writer, 9/25/2003

LANSING, Mich. -- Public school students across Detroit got an unexpected day off Thursday as their teachers boarded buses and cars for the state Capitol to protest a plan that would allow more charter schools in Michigan.

Detroit Public Schools chief executive Kenneth Burnley announced Wednesday classes would be canceled for the day because hundreds of teachers planned to attend the Detroit Federation of Teachers rally.

Shortly after his announcement, Gov. Jennifer Granholm announced she was ending negotiations on the disputed charter schools plan.

The Democratic governor said Wednesday that a bill intended to reflect an agreement she reached last week with the Republican House and Senate leaders includes a number of things she did not agree to. The agreement would have allowed 150 new charter schools over 10 years, but a loophole was added that would have allowed even more charter schools and wouldn't have extended increased accountability, spokeswoman Liz Boyd said.

"There is no point in continuing these counterproductive discussions given that we are clearly far apart and have no bipartisan agreement on either the principles or their implementation," Granholm said.

The 12,500-member Detroit teachers union opposes more charter schools because each new one takes students and state aid away from needy public schools, union President Janna Garrison said.

"Our neighborhood schools cannot be sacrificed for a select few to have a better opportunity," Garrison said. "Our goal is very simple. It's standing up for our children."

She said 3,200 teachers had requested a personal day to attend the rally, and with classes canceled, she expected an even larger turnout.

About 70,000 students now attend 202 charter schools in Michigan, according to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

In addition to expanding charter schools, the deal between the governor and the two Republican leaders would have returned Detroit's appointed school reform board to an elected board next summer, although it would have retained a chief executive and given the Detroit mayor the ability to reject the board's choice for CEO.

Bill Nowling, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, said the legislation sent to Granholm was only the first version. Republican lawmakers wanted Granholm to respond with any concerns she had, he said.

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Frist rallies support for school vouchers  

Senate to take up proposed D.C. program Wednesday

From Brad Wright, CNN Washington Bureau, September 23, 2003 

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Hoping to erode Democratic opposition, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist joined forces Tuesday with two prominent Democrats to rally support for a five-year school voucher program for the nation's capital.

The voucher program, widely supported by conservatives, is attached to a budget bill for the District of Columbia, a measure the Senate is scheduled to take up Wednesday.

Washington Mayor Anthony Williams and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California joined Frist, a Tennessee Republican., and Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, Republican chairman of the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, at a news conference to outline their support for the program.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, met separately to discuss whether to mount a filibuster against the measure.

The Senate is to consider a voucher bill similar to one that barely passed in the House earlier this month.

Opponents of vouchers have decried the effort to use taxpayer dollars to help cover tuition in religious schools, saying such vouchers take money away from efforts to improve public schools. Supporters of the program got a boost last summer when the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that a voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio, was constitutional.

Proponents of the program are also counting on the high-profile Democratic support of Feinstein and Williams to sway some senators.

Feinstein said she decided to support the effort because, she said, it does not take away money from schools in Washington. Instead, the Senate bill calls for $13 million in new money. The money would provide the families of 1,700 low-income Washington students with vouchers worth up to $7,500 each to attend private or parochial schools.

"If this program took money from the public schools, I wouldn't support it," Feinstein said. "If this program had not been requested by the mayor, I wouldn't support it. If it were not a pilot program for five years with accountability and measurement to test the youngsters at the end of five years, I wouldn't support it."

Congress passed a bill that would have provided vouchers for D.C. schools several years ago, but it was vetoed by then-President Clinton.

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Comparing Schools' Progress Difficult  

No Child Left Behind Law Allows States to Choose Their Own Tests and Passing Standards

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Ylan Q. Mui, Washington Post Staff Writers, September 25, 2003

Deep Run Elementary School in Howard County almost made it.

Nearly every group of students at Deep Run -- white children, black children, Hispanics, even those who speak little English -- scored well enough on Maryland's new standardized tests this year to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law. But because all 10 special-education students who took the test failed it, the school came up short.

On the other hand, Arlington County's Long Branch Elementary School made it -- despite the poor performance of the 24 special-education students who took the Virginia tests.

The reason for the schools' unequal treatment under the law is that Virginia doesn't count the scores of any group with fewer than 50 students taking the tests. Maryland counts the scores of any group with at least five students. And that is only the beginning of the differences in their calculations, which even include different definitions of a passing test score.

The ambitious new law allows each state to set its own standards and devise its own tests to measure students' progress in math and reading, as long it makes "adequate yearly progress" toward "full proficiency" for all students by 2014. Schools that miss the mark two years in a row must develop an improvement plan or have one imposed. At low-income schools that receive federal funds, sanctions begin with allowing students to transfer and can end with a takeover by the state.

But as Deep Run and Long Branch illustrate, differing state standards make it hard to know exactly what a school has achieved -- and impossible to compare schools -- without reading the fine print.

About 36 percent of Maryland schools failed to make adequate progress last year under the law. So did 45 percent of Virginia's and 90 percent of Florida's schools but only 16 percent of Connecticut's and, according to preliminary estimates, about 20 percent in the District. That tells educators very little about the comparative merits of those states' schools.

"We can't draw any national conclusions from a national law," said Terri Schwartzbeck, a policy analyst for the American Association of School Administrators. When states do well, he added, "it could mean their schools are really good, or it could mean their plan made it much easier for a school" to succeed.

Critics of the law say this will create a race to the bottom. "Rather than helping to raise standards, it's going to lower standards," said Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax), chairman of the Virginia House Education Committee.

But supporters say the law builds necessary flexibility into its mandates to improve the nation's schools. No Child Left Behind contains the most detailed federal guidelines ever issued for education while respecting the states' traditional power to decide what goes on inside classrooms, said Eugene W. Hickok, acting deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

On the road to proficiency for all, the law requires states to track the scores of separate groups of students, including major racial groups, special-education students and those who are from low-income families or speak limited English. Each group -- and each school as a whole -- must hit state-determined pass rates each year, and those targets rise gradually until the deadline.

But states choose their own curriculums. States choose their own tests. In most cases, states determine the passing score on each test. States set the target percentage of students who must pass the tests to constitute "adequate progress." And states decide which racial groups are "major."

The students at Arlington's Long Branch took the Virginia Standards of Learning exams -- all multiple-choice at the elementary school level -- which have been in place since 1998 and are considered among the toughest in the nation. On the reading exam, at least 61 percent of Long Branch students, and 61 percent of each subgroup in each grade, had to pass to meet the standard for adequate progress.

But at Deep Run, students took the brand-new Maryland School Assessment tests. The reading portion included multiple-choice and short-answer essay questions. Only 43.4 percent of a school's students and subgroups had to pass the reading test to meet the standard for progress. (Like about half the states, Maryland uses a mathematical formula to move the target depending on the size of the group. The smaller the group, the lower the target.)

The District, which has not released its No Child Left Behind results, uses another system. Students take the off-the-shelf, multiple-choice Stanford 9 exams written by a national publishing company. There, 30.3 percent of an elementary school's students, and student groups, must pass the reading exam to meet this year's target for progress.

Each state's targets -- which vary by subject and sometimes by grade -- are based on a federal formula that takes into account how students have scored in past years. That helps explain why school officials in the District, where scores have been low, anticipate that nearly 80 percent of their schools will hit the modest target for "adequate progress" this year.

That also helps explain why only 55 percent of schools in Virginia, where scores have been improving steadily in five years of testing, made enough additional progress this year to hit the higher target. As Dillard put it, "If you're a state that sets very high standards, your chances of making adequate yearly progress on your own system are much lower."

To make comparison even harder, Virginia counts a subgroup's scores in the measure of a school's progress only if the group has at least 50 students tested. In Maryland, scores count as soon as there are five students in a subgroup. In the District, the number is 40.

And then there is the question of which groups to track. Virginia tracks only those that make up at least 5 percent of the state's population, so it does not count Asians and Native Americans as distinct groups when measuring progress. Maryland and the District count both.

The inconsistencies have frustrated educators, who have spent an exhausting year trying to decipher the law and figure out how to comply with it. "We're playing by 50 sets of rules across the country, but the penalties are the same," said Edgar B. Hatrick III, superintendent of Loudoun County schools and president-elect of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents.

Still, some said the law gave states less choice than it seemed. Virginia was forced to eliminate its exemption for immigrant children taking its tests for the first time. "It didn't feel that flexible," state Superintendent Jo Lynne DeMary said.

In Maryland, which spent $53 million creating its tests with an eye to the law, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said the law's strength is that it will force states, one way or another, to close the achievement gap between white students and minorities. "We have the children we have," she said. "They are the children we need to teach and help succeed."

The only alternatives to the inconsistencies, said Andrew J. Rotherham, director of education policy for the Progressive Policy Institute, are to "say we're just not going to worry about disadvantaged groups" or to create a single, national test.

"I don't think many people want that, either," he said.

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'Dangerous' school list irks some officials 

WASHINGTON (AP) -- William Craigo cannot think of a single violent crime, let alone a pattern of dangerous behavior, at his west Texas school in eight years as principal.

Yet there it is on the list: Terrace Hills Middle School of El Paso, one of six campuses out of 7,734 in Texas to be deemed persistently dangerous by the state. Under new federal law, that means every student at the school must be offered a transfer elsewhere in the district.

Craigo blames faulty school data, including rock-throwing incidents counted as serious weapons violations. El Paso school district leaders, in disbelief that four of their schools got tagged as unsafe, have appealed to the state.

"It's a shame people didn't take a look around before they put such a heavy-duty label on us," Craigo said. "You look at the inner cities -- much bigger cities than El Paso that didn't get named -- and it kind of makes you wonder: What's going on here?"

The new school year marks the first time states have been required by the federal government to define and identify their most dangerous schools and let all students at those schools enroll elsewhere in their district. Most states have responded by declaring they have no schools fitting that description.

Only 52 of the nation's 91,000 public schools were named persistently dangerous based on definitions set by the states and crime data reported by the schools.

Forty-four states and the District of Columbia reported not a single unsafe school. Pennsylvania reported 28, Nevada eight, New Jersey seven, Texas six, New York two and Oregon one. The numbers may change after final state reviews or appeals.

The lack of a label does not mean a school is without crime, but rather that there is not enough to merit the designation. There were nearly 700,000 violent crimes in America's schools in 2000, the most recent year for which government numbers were available.

At a time when campuses use a range of tools to halt crime, from metal detectors to full-time police officers, 99.9 percent of schools got passing safety grades, based on self-reported data.

"I don't think most parents would be surprised to find out that schools aren't persistently dangerous, because they believe their schools are safe," said Jo Loss, mother of two public-school children in Castro Valley, California, and a leader of the state's PTA.

But to some school advocates, the small number identified is so implausible it renders the assessment meaningless.

"The states are sending a false sense of security to parents, and it creates a laxity among educators in terms of school safety," said Kenneth Trump, a national school safety consultant who has worked with officials in more than 35 states. "It's like a government Grade A stamp of approval saying everything is safe and fine."

To get the label in Washington state, for example, a 1,000-student school would have to expel three students per year for gun violations and 10 additional students per year for other violent offenses -- and that would have to happen for three consecutive years.

Washington's threshold was purposely set high because of the "significant consequences of being defined as persistently dangerous," said Martin Mueller of the state's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Connecticut gives schools three years to fix problems.

"If they do not improve, then they can be named, but we are not automatically condemning a school," said Thomas Murphy of the state's Education Department.

Most states have determined that to merit the dangerous label, schools must meet at least one threshold, such as student gun violations or expulsions based on violent behavior. Typically, states tied the minimum number of incidents to enrollment _ requiring a higher number at larger schools -- and they only counted schools that showed trouble over two years or three years.

The states also based their definitions on the most serious crimes: murder, arson, robbery and kidnapping. A dangerous environment, not just unacceptable behavior, is the target, said Bill Modzeleski, school safety director for the Education Department.

"When you see what Congress said in the legislation, then clearly there probably aren't as many persistently dangerous schools as the public may believe," he said.

Marsha Smith, a physical education teacher in Rockville, Maryland, and a consultant on teenage health and school safety, added, "The public may believe that schools are dangerous, but it's quite the opposite. Schools are the safest place for students to be."

Government numbers show that students age 12 to 18 are facing fewer violent crimes at school -- 699,800 in 2000, down 51 percent since 1993. Yet an increasing number of high school students, almost one in 10, reported being threatened or injured with a weapon at school in 2001.

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Vouchers Find Favor Outside GOP 

The Washington mayor and a California senator support a $13-million school plan.

By Nick Anderson, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON Congressional Republicans are gaining momentum in their effort to create the first federally funded school voucher program, which would help low-income District of Columbia families pay the costs of private-school tuition.

The legislation, which is backed by an unlikely alliance of Republicans, a senior California Democrat and Washington's mayor, could become law by year's end. It would be another landmark for school vouchers after the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the controversial taxpayer subsidies to cover fees at religious schools.

On Thursday, the Republican-controlled Senate began debate on a $13-million plan to offer low-income families in Washington scholarships, or vouchers, of up to $7,500 a year for children to enroll in private schools. Many of those schools are run by the Roman Catholic Church.

Leading Republicans, including President Bush, view the proposal as a chance to showcase vouchers and encourage others to try them elsewhere. But Mayor Anthony Williams, a staunch Democrat, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) insisted that they only want to give 2,000 or more disadvantaged children a shot at a better life.

"I've gotten a lot of flak because I'm supporting it," Feinstein said of the legislation, the first voucher bill she has supported in more than three decades as a public official. "But guess what? I don't care. I've spent the time. I've gone to the schools. I see what works. I see what doesn't work."

Feinstein said Williams should have the right to try something new in a 70,000-student system that perennially spends more per pupil than many others in the country, yet gets poor results. "What he has seen in the District of Columbia is too much failure," she said.

Williams made an unusual appearance on the Senate floor to remind lawmakers of his keen interest in the debate and press them, with his presence, to vote his way. The bow-tied mayor shook hands, conversed with senators and sat behind Feinstein to observe the proceedings. He said afterward it was his first time on the floor an appearance allowed under Senate rules. "Anything I can do to help," he told reporters. "Sitting right here gives a local face to this."

Under the bill, the government would spend $13 million on vouchers, but also give $26 million to schools in the district to be evenly divided between traditional public schools and public charter schools. The proposal is part of a $545-million bill funding the District of Columbia's government in the fiscal year that begins Wednesday.

The GOP-led House narrowly approved a similar bill this month. If the Senate approves its version and the two chambers approve a compromise, Bush is expected to sign it a reversal from the stance taken by his predecessor. In 1998, President Bill Clinton killed a District of Columbia voucher bill with a veto.

Democratic congressional leaders, teachers unions and many district politicians strongly oppose the House and Senate bills.

They argue that vouchers would sap money and momentum from efforts to shore up public education. Democratic opponents of the bill have held out the possibility of a filibuster to block it, though Feinstein said she doubted that would occur.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), an opponent of the bill, accused its backers of treating the district like a "political playground." He urged senators to think twice about approving a program for the capital that they would reject for their own states. Feinstein, he said, "has identified problems, but she hasn't identified the solutions not good solutions."

Publicly funded vouchers have been controversial across the country for decades. California voters have twice rejected school-voucher initiatives in recent years. Cleveland, Milwaukee and the state of Florida have created public voucher programs, however, and the Supreme Court ruling gave an opening for advocates to seek more by clarifying that programs in parochial schools did not represent an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

Advocates and critics of vouchers have worked the Senate furiously this week in anticipation of the debate. A vote could occur next week.

"We want the public schools to be as good as they can be," said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who oversees about 24 Catholic schools in Washington. Many are not, he said, and children from poor families should be given the same chance as those from wealthy families to opt out of the public system.

But Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's elected, nonvoting member of Congress, angrily dismissed such arguments and questioned the motives of voucher advocates. "These folks don't care beans about D.C.," she told reporters. "This is about whether you support public money for public schools, or not."

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Parents petition Hinckley-Big Rock on evolution 

By Ed Carter, SPECIAL TO THE BEACON NEWS

HINCKLEY Eight residents of the Hinckley-Big Rock School District urged the School Board this week to allow the "pros and cons of evolution" to be added to the high school curriculum.

Before the open discussion, Mary Coleman, high school biology instructor, outlined the manner in which the subject currently is taught. She indicated that no more than two weeks are spent with the subject of evolution, and it is only part of two chapters.

"The subject matter is also in chapter 29, but I do not teach that," Coleman said.

Chapter 29 offered only a review of the earlier matter, one resident noted.

Geoffrey Small, a primary spokesman for the eight residents, noted that the group was not asking that "intelligent design" or Creationism be taught.

"We are asking that we only teach for and against evolution," he said.

Another resident felt the current teaching curriculum would leave the students "informationally impaired."

The group then presented a petition signed by 100 residents asking for the change in curriculum.

The issue was not taken to a vote.

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School Desegregation Case Ends After 26 Years 

From L.A. Times Wire Reports

After 26 years of costly litigation, the Kansas City School District's $2-billion federal desegregation case is officially over.

Arthur A. Benson II, attorney for the plaintiff schoolchildren, withdrew his appeal of a ruling that said the district had met all the legal requirements to end federal court oversight.

In August, U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple ruled on the only issue that remained in the case, the black-white achievement gap. He said the district had narrowed the gap enough that its desegregation program no longer needed supervision.

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Schools are skipping P.E.

Lack of activity said to play obesity role

By Vicki Kemper, Los Angeles Times, 9/30/2003

WASHINGTON -- Missing from the schedule of many students this year is one class that used to be a staple: physical education. From North Carolina to California, physical education classes have been squeezed out of the school day, a trend that parallels a national increase in childhood obesity.

In 1991, 4 in 10 high school students took gym classes daily; 10 years later, the proportion was barely one-third. In 1980, just 5 percent of school-age children were severely overweight; 20 years later, the number jumped to 15 percent.

Few would argue that the one trend is completely responsible for the other, but a lack of physical activity, in school or out, is a significant contributor to obesity.

But faced with shrinking budgets and growing demands for improved academic performance on standardized tests, mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, many school systems see physical education as a course they can no longer afford.

"It's a terrible, terrible decision," said Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association. "Do you cut math and reading, or do you cut P.E.? . . . There's a lot more to this thing we call learning than simply test scores."

Other factors contribute to the obesity epidemic, including school lunches loaded with fat and the consumption of junk food on and off campus.

But officials increasingly point to the loss of physical education classes as a culprit.

Among the agencies that have begun to focus on the problem is the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Howell Wechsler, a health scientist in the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health, said society should take advantage of the time children are in school to teach them "the skills and attitudes needed to embrace a physically active lifestyle."

The need for in-school exercise was underscored in the results of a recent national survey by the CDC that suggested that more than 3 out of 5, or 61.5 percent, of 9- to 13-year-olds participate in no organized physical activities outside school. More than 1 in 5, or 22.6 percent, engage in no physical activity in their free time.

"Schools are not going to be able on their own to reverse this obesity epidemic," Wechsler acknowledged. "But they're an important part of the puzzle."

The CDC, the American Heart Association, and the National Association for Sports and Physical Education are among the many organizations that recommend daily physical education from kindergarten through 12th grade. Physical activity offers clear short- and long-term health benefits. Most health specialists also say that children who exercise regularly perform better academically.

Illinois is the only state to require daily physical education from kindergarten through 12th grade. Even there, gym classes are not a sure thing. A recent survey estimated that fewer than 10 percent of the state's elementary schools comply with the law.

Some states require daily physical education in elementary school, but the requirements in virtually all states decline as children age. Until recently, students in most states had to take a year or two of physical education in high school to graduate.

In Massachusetts, the state Board of Education abolished a requirement that students get 90 minutes of physical education each week. Instead, the state requires students in all grades to take physical education classes, but does not specify the amount of time. It also lets districts define what constitutes physical education. Team sports, such as football or volleyball, count toward the requirement, according to the state Department of Education.

About 17.7 percent of Massachusetts students in grades 9-12 took physical education classes daily, compared with 32.2 percent nationally, according to 2001 data gathered by Action For Healthy Kids, a national group seeking to boost students' nutrition and physical activity in school.

Minnesota recently eliminated physical education as a graduation requirement, and a new Florida law allows high school students to graduate in three years by skipping physical education and some electives.

Roughly one-third of all high schools give students another out: If they participate in band, cheerleading, school sports teams, or similar activities, they are exempt from physical education requirements.

In California, elementary schools must offer an average of 20 minutes of physical education per day. Middle and high schools must provide an average of 40 minutes per day, and high school students must take physical education for two years to graduate. But even California's relatively tough requirements have produced disappointing results. Only 24 percent of the state's fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders met minimal physical fitness standards last year.

Dianne Wilson-Graham, who directs physical education in California, pointed out that the state does not enforce its requirements.

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Concise, Cogent, Contentious 

Short Essays, Selected for Some State Exams and Soon the SAT and ACT, Get Mixed Reviews

By Jay Mathews, Washington Post Staff Writer, September 30, 2003

Sara Stevens is a very bright high school senior who wants to be creative in her writing. Like most American teenagers, though, she knows what will get her the best grade. "The essays have to be made-to-order, with topic sentences and a thesis and a conclusion," she said. "That's what the teacher wants to see, so that is what I write."

Her instructors at Oakton High School in Fairfax County say they seek much more than that and have no intention of strapping students into compositional straitjackets. But with the short essay rapidly becoming the most important measure of writing in America, pivotal to college applications and class rank, Stevens and others wonder whether it is really wise to stray from the standard approach.

Writing a short essay on a prescribed topic -- what testing professionals call a "writing prompt" -- already is part of the new exams required for graduation in several states, including Virginia and, in a few years, Maryland. A similar essay will be added to the SAT in 2005, boosting the possible top score from 1600 to 2400 and creating a new source of anxiety for college-bound students, their parents and teachers.

Advocates of good writing applaud this new emphasis but worry that it might overlook creative talent and lead students to write in just one way.

"If teachers are compelled to teach to the test of the short, timed essay, they won't reflect writing as real writers practice it in the real world: varied in terms of purpose, audience and situation," said Douglas D. Hesse, an English professor and director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Illinois State University in Normal.

Linda Conlon, coordinator for college-level courses at Quaker Valley High School in Leetsdale, Pa., said: "Any writing is better than no writing, although my most creative students feel frustrated over both the substance and structure of the writing prompts. They would prefer more flexibility in showing what they can do."

Yet many educators see the rise of the short-essay test as significant progress, particularly for students who need the practice. "Writing is essential for anyone's post-secondary life, and making it part of the SATs and ACT [the rival Midwest-based test], well, I say, it's about time," said Bernadette Glaze, specialist for advanced academic programs in the Fairfax County schools.

"I do have a concern that teachers will define the teaching of writing as teaching to this test," Glaze added. "We need informed writing teachers, not just test designers, to be a part of this process."

Chris Folk, who teaches English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, said the essay tests will force teachers to address their students' many weaknesses in grammar and clarity, or risk looking bad when the results come back.

Some teachers say all tests have their limits, and a required short essay comes closer than most examinations to encouraging a valuable skill.

"Short essays are the lifeblood of business," said Rich Ingalls, who teaches at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. "Students who learn how to compose a short message that both informs and explains, while at the same time is persuasive, will be a success after graduating from college."

Jenna Youngs, who graduated from Wauconda (Ill.) High School last spring and attends the University of Missouri-Columbia, said the intensified writing instruction she received in high school has paid off. "I don't remember all the different math formulas I crammed into my head before the ACT, but I do remember how to write an analytical paper with good topic sentences at the beginning of each paragraph," she said.

Linda Serrato, a freshman at Stanford University, said the five-paragraph essay form can grow stale, but good teachers overcome that. In her junior year at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, she said, "my teacher refused to let us use that essay form and taught us other forms of writing that were actually more useful -- argumentative, opinion pieces, et cetera."

Testing experts note that essay exams are more difficult and expensive to produce and score than multiple-choice tests. And such exams "can be challenging to score reliably," said Scott Elliot, chief operating officer of Vantage Learning, an educational assessment company in Newtown, Pa. "They require expert judgment and are therefore subject to more variation."

Because people, not computers, do the grading, it also costs more per test -- the SAT graders will be paid about $20 an hour -- than it does to score the multiple-choice exams with automatic scanners. Previously, the SAT assessed verbal abilities only through multiple-choice questions about vocabulary and reading passages.

According to the College Board, which oversees the SAT, graders of the new short-essay test will be required to have a college degree and at least three years' teaching experience, including a high school or college course in the past five years that requires writing.

College Board officials have heard that some students are worried about losing points if their essays break crusty old rules, such as putting topic sentences at the beginning of every paragraph. Not so, say the College Board guidelines for the test. Graders will be told to take into account "the development of ideas, supporting examples, organization, word choice and sentence structure." They also will be told to ignore handwriting quality and not judge an essay by its length.

Not all high school students are comforted by these assurances. "By introducing a writing portion on standardized tests, it will convey to the test takers a sense of triviality associated with the mass-produced multiple-choice tests," said Janet Yam, a junior at Lowell High School in San Francisco.

But many of the sophomores who will be the first to take the new SAT and ACT writing tests say they realize, test or no test, that they must learn to choose the right words. "Being able to write is so important," said AnnaLaura Grant, a sophomore at Fairfax's Oakton High. "Someone might have really great ideas and yet still get a bad grade on an essay because they didn't know how to organize those ideas.

"The SAT limiting writing achievement to only short essays might not be able to really show how good a writer is, artistically speaking," she said, "but it shows how well a writer can get the information and ideas across."

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