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Inside The Law

Inside The Law

Analyzing, Debating and Explaining No Child Left Behind

Another Month, Another Change

Speaking up hasn't hurt educators lately. The Bush administration is easing restrictions on No Child Left Behind yet again, the fourth change in four months.

This time, the change reduces the number of students a school may test without shirking the law. The issue was atop a pile of complaints from educators, who say the required 95 percent participation rate on math and reading tests to determine adequate yearly progress every year was too strict.

The change allows more leeway over two years. If schools average a 95 percent testing participation rate among students over two or three years, they will meet the law. For example, if a school tests 94 percent of students one year, it would still be within the law if 96 percent of students tested the year before. Schools also have leeway for students who miss tests based on a medical emergencies, such as from a car accident.

If schools accept federal poverty aid and if they don't meet the required goals in the law at least two straight years they can still face sanctions. Districts must offer students a chance to transfer from a low-performing school to a better-performing school. The school could even risk state takeover after two years of low performance.

The change in the law is among several recently. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has changed the requirements for special education students twice since December. The law had allowed a half percentage of special education children with the most severe cognitive disabilities to take an alternative test but has since allowed up to 1 percent of such students to take the alternate. Paige is also allowing districts to seek waivers to allow more than 1 percent of the population to take an alternative test.

Vocal Minority

Despite problems with the No Child Left Behind act, some educators are choosing to look at the bright side of the law.

"This does provide for greater accountability for subgroups," says Robert Henry, superintendent of schools in Hartford, Conn. "Over the years, school systems have escaped scrutiny because a number of students have pulled the entire district forward" without looking at other populations, such as minority and/or poor students, who might have slipped through the cracks, he says.

The School District of Philadelphia CEO Paul Vallas also praises the law, despite the lack of funding. "While we can't shortchange our children by failing to fund reforms, neither can we hold their futures hostage by waiting for a never-ending funding debate to resolve itself," he told the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee on Labor, Health, Human Services and Education in March. "Our philosophy is about sending all available dollars into the classroom. We will continue to use the tools provided us under the ... act to accomplish this and we will not allow excuses to get in the way of achievement."

Henry is quick to add the law needs serious revisions, particularly in funding and because test scores are the sole gauge of whether or not a school is improving or students are succeeding. He says he believes test scores reveal only some successes.

But unlike many educators, Vallas has a plan that does not make excuses and includes steps to achieve the goals in No Child. The Philadelphia district formed school-by-school partnerships with universities, museums and companies to assist the lowest performing schools. The district also started a mandatory six-week summer school academic program in reading and math for students in grades 3-10 not meeting promotion requirements or performing below grade level.

The district also implemented a corrective action plan for schools not making adequate yearly progress. Forty-nine failing schools in Philadelphia were restructured with private and charter school management and 22 high schools have started ninth-grade academics designed to close the achievement gaps for students below grade level in reading and math.

Vallas' cooperation comes on the heels of a judge approving a three-year plan for the district following a 33-year-old desegregation lawsuit. In March, a judge praised Vallas for creating a plan that, in part, strives to close the achievement gap with more rigorous and standardized curricula, lowering class sizes and cracking down on unruly student behavior.

Still Waiting for State Results, Florida Girl Gains in Language Arts

After taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in March, state students are still waiting to hear results, which are due this month.

Elizabeth Ashley, a sixth-grader at Robert H. Jenkins Junior-Middle School in Palatka, Fla., is improving in her language arts work, but holding steady in math.

"As far as her class grade goes, she's progressively gone up," says Henrietta Staples, Elizabeth's language arts teacher. Over a nine-week period, her grades in spelling, writing, reading, projects and test scores have jumped from 82 to 94, or from a B to an A. On her Scholastic Reading Inventory, which she takes three times a year, she scored at level 4 in January, just falling short of being on grade level.

But Staples is pleased, as is Assistant Principal Chelsea Merritt. While Elizabeth's math grade, a C, has not improved over the past nine weeks, Merritt says he believes Elizabeth's FCAT scores will show improvement. "They might not increase another level," he says, "but it will show growth."

In math, Elizabeth still struggles. says Keith Hill, her math teacher. She has trouble with problem solving, fractions and decimals in particular, he says. After pinpointing each student's weaknesses, Hill works with Elizabeth and other students to develop thinking skills. He starts with the concrete type of learning--hands-on--and then shifts to the semi-concrete, such as drawing pictures. Then he encourages students to semi-abstract thinking, such as looking at someone else's drawing, to the abstract, or creating numbers and symbols for problems.

The idea is popular among elementary math teachers to build a "conceptual bridge" for students, Hill says. "It helps students tremendously, especially for girls who tend to be more verbal than boys," Hill says.

Sacrificing the Arts and History

Arecent study shows that schools are spending more time on reading, math and science while sacrificing social studies, civics, geography, languages and art.

Academic Atrophy: The Condition of the Liberal Arts in America's Public Schools was conducted by the Council for Basic Education and funded by the Carnegie Corp. of New York.

It is the first major study of how No Child Left Behind is influencing instructional time and professional development. The shift away from liberal arts subjects occurs most in elementary schools and schools with large minority student populations.

Specifically, about 75 percent of all principals surveyed in Indiana, Maryland, New Mexico and New York say that instructional time for reading, writing and math is increasing greatly or somewhat. And nearly half stated there was increased instructional time for science.

But the overall curriculum is getting squeezed, with less time spent on teaching social studies, civics, geography and the arts. The largest cut is in art. About 25 percent of all principals reported less time for the arts.

"The narrowing of the curriculum is worrisome. ... Truly high expectations cannot begin and end with math, science and reading," states Raymond Bartlett, council president.

Principals in middle and high schools, are seeing more time and professional development allotted for social studies, civics and geography, the report states.

Good News for No Child

Students in the largest urban public school districts appear to show improvement in reading and math within a year.

According to Beating the Odds IV, conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools, about 83 percent of the Great City School districts increased reading scores in more than half the grades tested.

"It's one of the first signs that the major cities are making substantial headway at the elementary school level in teaching students to read," says Michael Casserly, the council's executive director.