At Minneapolis' Urban League Academy Elementary, director Raenel Jones thinks she knows what it takes to educate students of color: Constant assessment, believing students can be successful, and talking to their families "all the time."

Virtually all the school's 100 students are black. Many have been kicked out of other schools. Three-quarters come from low-income families, and they all "show up with baggage," she said.

The school didn't meet state targets this year, and if it doesn't next year it will enter a cycle of increasing penalties that could end with the school being restructured.

"For some of the students, in school, they don't see a light at the end of the tunnel," Jones said. "I have to give them that light. I need to turn it back on."

As Minnesota students return to school this week, nearly half of the state's schools have been recently branded as falling behind.

With six years to go, the United States is now halfway to the mandate set by the No Child Left Behind law that every student be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

The law has few big fans among educators, who view it as punitive and destined to label every school a failure. It has transformed school use of student data, and increased time spent on math and reading. But it has also unearthed a painful truth: Minnesota is failing its students of color.

"Everybody says this is somehow revealing the 'ugly underbelly of schools,'" said Mary Cecconi, director of Minnesota's Parents United network. "Is this revealing the 'ugly underbelly' of underperforming schools, or the 'ugly underbelly' of a society that really doesn't want to face racism and poverty?"

Narrowing the gap

The No Child Left Behind law is the most recent incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, which provided for things such as Title I funding for low-income students.

According to the 2002 reauthorization, states must test how different student groups are faring. If one group -- such as poor students -- fails to meet state targets, the school is labeled as not making "adequate yearly progress."

For schools receiving Title I money, failure means penalties that increase over time, from having to offer transfers and tutoring, to restructuring a whole school. The proficiency level required each year increases -- by 2014, the law says, every student group in the country has to pass the tests.

A 2004 legislative auditor's report predicted that by 2014, somewhere between 80 to 100 percent of Minnesota's elementary schools would not meet targets.

For St. Paul Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, the law's implementation is imperfect. "But without it," she said, "we would have no leverage to bring to light the problems associated with the achievement gap, and that's at the heart of what the spirit of the law is about: Transparency. Are we doing the job or not?"

Minnesota has one of the largest white-black achievement gaps in the United States, according to the most recent national test data. The only place that has a gap significantly bigger than Minnesota, statistically, is Washington, D.C.

According to state data, it's not shrinking. In fact, it grew this year in reading.

The size of the gap "is not that strange," said Christy Hovanetz-Lassila, assistant education commissioner. White students here score higher than the national average, and the state has small pockets of students of color where "we maybe haven't been able to differentiate instruction as effectively as we could," she said.

Evangeline Montgomery, a parent at the Urban League school, sent her children there because she doubted that other public schools could educate black children as well. And she knew Jones.

"Sometimes, an African-American child might get labeled as not knowing something, when you just have to explain it in a different way," Montgomery said. "You don't want your kids to be identified as special ed just because a teacher misunderstood them."

A data revolution

Schools need to meet targets in every one of up to 37 categories to succeed under the No Child Left Behind law. Each of nine student subgroups is measured in participation and proficiency in reading and math. And schools are measured either by their attendance rate, or a high school's graduation rate.

Schools have become fluent at analyzing student data, said Betty Schweizer, executive director of TIES, an education technology collaborative of 38 Minnesota districts. Schools use software designed as a high-end business intelligence tool to track performance for individual students as well as student groups.

TIES has data on more than 250,000 Minnesota students.

"In the past, it might take two weeks to dig out information and do analysis on student data," said Schweizer, "and now we can have the answer within five seconds."

Schweizer thinks the data revolution in schools would have happened even without No Child Left Behind because of technology advances.

But, "it's helped us look at whether what we're doing to teach a child is producing the results we want it to," said Mary Kirchoff, an Edina reading specialist.

What the future holds

The No Child Left Behind law is past the date for congressional reauthorization, but it doesn't expire if Congress doesn't act. Now, educators say, everyone is waiting to see who the new president will be.

In 2007, a group made up of legislators, Minnesota education groups and the Department of Education recommended changes to the law in anticipation of reauthorization, which included extending the 2014 timeline, making sure the U.S. Department of Education requires all states to set rigorous standards, and allowing states to measure student growth on the tests.

There have also been consistent murmurs at the Capitol -- though nothing has come to fruition -- that the state should pull out of the federal law, but it would probably forfeit some federal school funds. No state has tried to do so yet, so how much funding would be lost is up in the air. The Department of Education predicts it would be about $220 million annually.

According to Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers' union, schools need more money for teacher training and early childhood education, so schools can intervene early with struggling students.

Dooher, who called the law "a disaster," said that it has hurt teacher morale statewide and narrowed the curriculum that schools deliver in order to focus on reading and math. The law's mandates are chronically underfunded, and it needs to have incentives for schools to perform, instead of punishments if they don't, he said.

"You don't just put penalties and labeling in place," he said. "No Child Left Behind is a slogan, and slogans don't educate kids."

But the goal should stand, said Deputy Education Commissioner Chas Anderson.

"When people say that we can't hit 100 percent," she said, "I'll ask them, 'If it's not 100 percent, if it's 90 or 80 percent, then you need to tell us which 20 percent of kids we're going to leave behind.' And no one can answer that question."

Emily Johns • 651-298-1541