Inside the Law
Change Coming to No Child Left Behind
A fundamental change in how the Education Department enforces the No Child Left Behind act could affect the education of millions of students as states seek federal approval on everything from teacher quality to the measuring of student progress.
For example, the department plans to give certain states more freedom in how they test hundreds of thousands of children with milder disabilities. Only states that can prove progress or a strong commitment to improve will be seriously considered for that flexibility, department officials said.
The new enforcement approach is the first significant change under Spellings, who helped write the 2001 law as Bush's domestic policy chief before becoming secretary in January.
Spellings has determined that the Education Department hasn't focused enough on the big picture--whether students are learning--when it reviews and approves state education plans. States must get approval if they want changes in how they hold schools accountable.
As examples, the department now plans closer reviews of the states' progress in graduating students, showing gains in early reading and providing report cards to the public.
"If they're going to judge states' efforts on meeting the intent of No Child Left Behind, then I think it's going to be a great move and something everyone will be in support of," says Scott Young, senior policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "It would put more focus on results, not on making sure states comply with certain regulations."
The bipartisan conference of state lawmakers has criticized the law, calling it a coercive act that sets unrealistic goals for some hard-to-reach students. One state, Connecticut, became the first to pledge a federal lawsuit over the law.
Yet the department's plans to give states different treatment based on good behavior raise political and legal questions, says Patricia Sullivan, director of the independent Center on Education Policy. Administration officials said lawyers have cleared the idea.
"Who is going to decide whether you have a different level of commitment than another state?" Sullivan says. "Will it matter whether you're a red or blue state? Will it matter whether you have something pending in your state legislature to send the federal money back?"
On the special education policy, the department already allows schools to test 1 percent of students--those with significant cognitive disabilities--at their instructional level rather than their grade level. That has been the only testing exception.
Now the department will also allow flexibility for students who are not severely disabled but who have not been able to reach grade level because of disabilities. Schools will be allowed to give alternate tests for an additional 2 percent of kids, aimed at covering these "gap" students.
Put together, the change means 3 percent of all children--that's roughly 30 percent of all children with disabilities--will be allowed to be tested on standards geared for them.
States have been clamoring for that flexibility. But several advocacy groups for the disabled are angry about the change, saying it weakens the promise to leave no child behind.
"It doesn't make sense to decide there is a group of kids who will never make grade level," said Ricki Sabia, associate director of the National Down Syndrome Society Policy Center. "We hold great exception to that concept."
Educators, Critics Assess Meaning Of Test Boycotts
Given a few American students who have refused recently to take required state assessment tests, some educators and critics are assessing the significance.
With his parents' permission, Macario Guajardo, a fifth grader in Edinburg, Texas, skipped school on the February day when classmates took a statewide reading test to be promoted to sixth grade. Macario says the test caused him "a lot of pressure." Mia Kang, a San Antonio high school freshman, balked at taking a practice test in February. A Colorado sixth-grader was going to skip the state test until her father found out she would have been held back a grade.
Texas schools will test 2.8 million students this academic year. Macario and Mia are the only boycotters known to the Texas Education Agency, says spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe. "The system can survive having one or two kids protest, but they are really hurting themselves and their classmates," Ratcliffe says.
One child who bows out potentially could make a difference in whether a district meets adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind--that 95 percent of students participate. "If adults had the necessary insight and courage to take a stand against this absurd transformation of schools into test prep centers, the kids wouldn't have to take their stand," says Alfie Kohn, an education commentator.
Does NCLB Leave Some Children Behind?
What happens to struggling students in schools that make adequate yearly progress under NCLB? Are they left behind? NCLB is making it worse for some students because resources are directed to schools not making AYP instead of individual students, says Scott Young, senior policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In 2004, for example, more than 82,000 Minnesota students who scored poorly on state tests may have slipped through the cracks. In some cases, the school scored well, masking the low number of low scoring students. In others, struggling students attend one of the 60 percent of schools that aren't Title 1. Non-Title 1 schools are ineligible for NCLB funds for supplemental services to help improve test scores.
But Bill Walsh, Minnesota Department of Education spokesman, says that just because students aren't receiving supplemental services "doesn't mean the law isn't working." Schools should provide services for struggling students regardless of NCLB funds for supplemental services, he says.
Walsh says the education department is providing schools with more data to help drive instruction for students. For example, each Minnesota student's third grade math test score is broken down into sections, such as computation, and delivered to fourth-grade teachers in the fall.
This pattern--test, analyze, instruct, re-test--is NCLB's intent. "NCLB is designed to give states time to reach 100 percent proficiency. Eventually these students will catch up," says Darla Marburger of the U.S. Department of Education.
California Reaches Uneasy Compromise
An agreement with federal education officials over how California can measure adequate yearly progress and still comply with No Child Left Behind Act has allowed the state to reduce the number of school districts on its watch list.
The watch list identifies districts that scored poorly on reading and math tests without making sufficient progress over two years, or that didn't test enough students.
At first, California only placed 14 districts on its list of schools needing improvement. But when federal officials reviewed the criteria the state was using to measure progress, it found it was too lax and didn't meet NCLB regulations. Under regulations, more than 300 districts could have been listed. The compromise puts about 150 districts on the list, including Los Angeles schools, and some officials say it's still too high.
Darla Marburger, deputy assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, says the state erred when it based the improved districts only on the academic performance of one subgroup-- economically disadvantaged students. This action removed accountability for others such as English language learners or disabled students. Marburger says now a district will be placed on the watch list only if it misses its academic goals for two years in a row in the same subject across elementary, middle and high school grades.
"There is a lot of flexibility in the law,'' she says, "that allows states to meet their unique challenges, while accounting for all students.''
But Jack O'Connell, California's state superintendent of public instruction, says the list is still misleading. Good districts could be on the list just because not enough students took the test or a few students scored low. The state, he says, should concentrate on districts really struggling.
"I'm not sure this is going to help,'' he says. "The headlines in the papers are that a good school is failing. And I think that makes NCLB look silly."
Being Fair To NCLB
Considered the best hope for the nation, the No Child Left Behind law has gotten an undeserved bad rap, say a handful of organizations. Several groups say the law's debate has been unfair, so they created a new organization, The Achievement Alliance, which is designed to provide timely, accurate and nonpartisan information about student achievement and the law.
"Each of the organizations felt there needed to be more balance in the discussion about No Child Left Behind, what it was and what it wasn't," says Amy Wilkins, director of The Achievement Alliance. "While the groups welcomed debate ... they felt the discussion wasn't fully and accurately representing NCLB's strengths and weaknesses."