Eight-year-old Umaid Qureshi does math problems for fun and reads most nights before bed. His mother thinks her son might become a doctor, like her. Or maybe he will follow his father's lead and become a software consultant.
So when Fairfax County sent Shafaq Qureshi a letter in August explaining that Umaid's school — McNair Elementary in Herndon — fell short on standardized test scores and that any McNair student could transfer to a better-performing school, she decided there was no reason for him to stay.
"I thought, this is an opportunity, why shouldn't I try it out?" said Qureshi. "I just felt like maybe something was lacking there."
Umaid, now a third-grader at Oak Hill Elementary in Herndon, is one of 112 Fairfax students who changed schools this year under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The legislation is intended to give struggling students the chance to move from high-poverty, low-performing schools, but Fairfax school officials have found that the students who take the transfers generally aren't the ones who need extra help.
Instead, they are like Umaid: higher-scoring students from middle-class homes. The trend, evident in suburban school districts nationwide, means that the receiving schools don't have to augment their remedial programs or worry about test scores dropping. It also means that resources spent on transfer students aren't going to the students who need them most, some educators said.
Fairfax School Superintendent Jack D. Dale is pushing for a change in the law that would limit transfers to students in subgroups that don't meet testing benchmarks.
A pattern emerges
At McNair, one of two Fairfax schools that were required to offer transfers, only one of 89 transfer students had failed any of the Standards of Learning exams, the tests used in Virginia to measure a school's performance, Principal Susan Benezra said. Twenty of those labeled transfer students had never attended McNair because they were new to the neighborhood or were private school students or preschoolers last year.
Dale said the pattern holds true for all the county's transfer students. "I'm not going to list names," Dale recently told a group of parents and teachers, "But rest assured, it's not the children who were failing."
Educators said that few students nationwide have elected to change schools and that it is too soon to know the full effect of the transfer provision. However, they said Fairfax's experience reflects that of other suburban school districts.
In Howard County, for example, seven of 39 students who transferred in 2003 were poor children with low test scores. No schools were required to allow transfers this year.
Montgomery County school officials said that less than one-quarter of the 76 students who transferred this year were from poor families and that most were not struggling. "These are not the children who are in trouble academically," said Kate Harrison, a district spokeswoman.
Karen Symms Gallagher, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, said that requiring schools to offer choice to students who are making the grade misses the point of No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law in 2002. The home schools lose some of their star pupils, she said, and districts spend money busing those children to other schools.
"This is a problem that people are just starting to realize," Symms Gallagher said. "You really are taking scarce resources and using them on the children who aren't really the targets."
Daniel Weiss, spokesman for Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), one of the principal authors of the legislation, said the intent of the transfer option is to allow the poorest children in the lowest-performing schools a chance for a better education.
Under the law, districts with few resources can limit the number of transfers and must give priority to the neediest children. In the District, for example, parents of 106 elementary students applied for transfers, but there were only 68 spaces at better-performing schools. Those spaces were allotted to students having the most trouble.
But Weiss said the law also envisions times when successful students will transfer. "You might see kids who are doing very well, and they are trapped in a school that is no good and they want out," he said.
Echoing parents of several Fairfax transfer students, Chantarat Techapanit said it wasn't dissatisfaction with McNair that prompted her to move her son, a first-grader, to Oak Hill. She just wanted him to have the best education possible.
"I liked McNair, and I liked his teachers. I didn't know why it didn't pass," Techapanit said. "To be on the safe side, I wanted him to get a better environment."
McNair and Dogwood Elementary in Reston — the other Fairfax school required to offer transfers — didn't measure up for one reason: poor students did not score well enough on standardized English tests. Under the federal law, subgroups of students in each school — including some minority groups, those with disabilities, poor students and youths learning English — must meet target pass rates on the tests.
Many nuances of the act
Benezra said few parents understand the nuances of No Child Left Behind and failed to realize that most of the school's students performed at standards. "The message that they grasped was that McNair failed, so we should transfer," she said.
Andrea Rosenthal, who has two children at Oak Hill, said that when parents learned of the transfers in August, some wondered whether the end result would be lower test scores at Oak Hill. She said those concerns subsided once classes began. "It looks like we got the cream of the crop," she said.
Dale said he was confident that schools accepting transfer students would easily handle the new students. But he said he worries that the flight of high-performing students could mean shrinking test scores at the schools they left. "The problem is that you end up immediately losing a percentage of the children who passed the previous year," he said. "The schools are going to have an even greater challenge."
This month, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, with Dale's support, will decide whether to advocate changing the law to make transferring an option only for children in the subgroups that don't meet testing benchmarks. In Fairfax, five transfer students fit in that category.
Benezra said she was disappointed to see some of her best students leave but said she is confident that the school's test scores will not suffer. Teachers are used to a diverse and changing student body, she said. The school, where 42 percent of the students are poor, is the most transient in the district and has a large population of English learners.
Verna Hill, whose daughter, Alexsandra, 11, is a special education student at McNair, said she has been impressed by the school and didn't even consider a transfer. Alexsandra, a sixth-grader, has struggled in reading and math, but with the help of her teachers and lots of work at home, she is doing well, Hill said.
"Everyone knows [Alexsandra], and she knows them," Hill said. "I think the teachers are doing a phenomenal job."
At Oak Hill, the new students have had an easy transition. JoEllan Frasch, a first-grade teacher, said 17 of the 23 students in her class come from within McNair's boundaries. Most are reading above grade level, and none has needed remediation, she said.
One recent afternoon, Techapanit's son, Nathan Chuwait, a former McNair kindergartener and a promising golfer in the U.S. Kids Golf league, stretched out on the floor and carefully penciled answers on a worksheet to questions about the bald eagle.
Nathan said he liked McNair and is happy in his new school, too, especially because his best friend also transferred. "I like the teacher," Nathan said. "We've already learned plus, so now we're learning subtraction."