What makes a great school is hard to quantify, while what can make a school fail, or meet, its “adequate yearly progress” is far too simplistic. Welcome to Montello School’s conundrum.

One of Maine’s largest elementary schools, Montello didn’t meet its “adequate yearly progress” on standardized testing scores last year, in accordance with the federal No Child Left Behind legislation. This has caused even some devoted Montello parents to move their children into schools with better scores.

Conversely, this scenario has caused Montello officials and education advocates to hastily explain, again, that the guidelines for compliance are quite tricky, as poor performance in one of myriad measurements triggers the regulatory trapdoor from adequacy to inadequate “yearly progress.”

A handful of concerned parents have re-thought their children’s educational future, as is their right and privilege under No Child Left Behind. Three parents have been featured in this newspaper: Karen Lane in an article of Sept. 5, and Jeff and Karen Johnson in a letter to the editor published Sept. 18.

All spoke about their thought processes. Lane’s daughter was entering her first year at Montello, while the Johnsons wrote eloquently about their experiences with Montello’s high morale and award-winning faculty. One, Lane, barely knew the school. The others, the Johnsons, knew it, as they said, “intimately.”

Yet both reached the same conclusion, which details the power wielded by these test scores.

It also has the unfortunate effect of saying Montello’s ability to educate children is weak, when the real reason for failing to make “adequate yearly progress” concerns the performance of specific student subsets.

In Montello’s case, it’s those with lower English-language proficiencies. By law, administration explained, such students should show a certain level of proficiency after a year of instruction. But students enrolled at Montello, many of them new immigrants with meager or no English skills, need more time.

Federal law doesn’t accommodate these individual scenarios, which is why No Child Left Behind has been criticized, and rightly so, as a blanket initiative that doesn’t acknowledge the challenges that come with teaching a cross-section of diverse students.

Educational advocates, like Peter Geiger of Lewiston, chairman of the Maine Excellence in Education and a supporter of Montello School, say these criticisms have found receptive ears among Maine’s congressional delegation, and subsequent changes to No Child Left Behind could be proposed.

It’s too late for Montello, however. Yet the school doesn’t deserve the tag of “failure,” and parents shouldn’t allow overbroad classifications to define their perception of the entire school. Montello, as every school in Lewiston-Auburn, has great qualities, as well as some that parents may find unappealing.

They shouldn’t be judged on just one, however. The gut-wrenching process of evaluating schools like Montello, as illustrated by the stories of Lane, the Johnsons and the convoluted federal law, is anything but clear-cut.

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