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Inside The Law

Inside the Law

Analyzing, Debating and Explaining No Child Left Behind

New England's Bold Test: Multi-State Assessments

A better quality assessment of what every student learns, including special education and English language learners, is what new multi-state assessment tests are all about.

In a first-of-its-kind program, Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island education departments are joining to give third through eighth graders the same assessments in reading and math, required under No Child Left Behind, starting in the 2005-06 school year, according to Mary Ann Snider, the coordinator in Rhode Island. Writing tests will be given in fifth grade and eighth grade.

In October, every student taking a regular assessment test will take either a reading or math pilot test in hopes of working out any problems.

The so-called New England Comprehensive Assessment Program is administered under New England Compact, which provides a forum for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island to gather knowledge and establish cross-state activities for children. Its main focus is NCLB implementation.

The compact began with the Enhanced Assessment Program, funded with federal dollars and given to the four New England states. The program is designed to improve quality assessments for special education and ELL learners, says Carrie Parker, project director for EAP, in part by focusing on a universal design for every child and using professional development that matches teaching to classroom work.

The multi-state tests, which evolved from the EAP, measure the content of the three participating states' new grade level expectations, or GLE, and are available on each state's Web sites, Snider says. The new tests are more accessible and public than previous individual state tests because teachers, parents and administrators can view the GLE documents to learn what is expected of students, Snider says.

NECAP will save each of the states money as well as offer all students the best assessment available, given the combined resources and experts working on GLE. The states have contracted with Measured Progress of Dover, N.H., for $33.4 million over the next six years, officials say. Rhode Island expects to save about $5 million through the joint effort, Snider says.

State Funding Lawsuits Could Hit NCLB Next

Adequacy funding lawsuits have been around for years. But No Child Left Behind's demands appear to be driving more of them.

"In the last couple of years, there has been an increase in litigation, and it will continue," says Steve Smith, education analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "I think it's a trend and, with the two-year adequate yearly progress results under [NCLB], if schools don't meet AYP after two years in a row, they will require technical assistance."

Of the 25 states in school finance litigation now, "they all at least indirectly deal with No Child Left Behind. They're saying the system is inadequate" to meet the law's demands, Smith says.

Adequacy lawsuits, which mainly come from poor and disadvantaged districts, were first brought to federal courts in the late 1960s on grounds of inadequate funding. Lawsuits then shifted to fight for equity, or the amount of money spent on one group of students compared to another.

Following the 1983 release of A Nation at Risk, which lambasted American education, the nation's schools embraced standards-based reform, Smith says. Now, the plaintiffs, or districts, have a 70 percent success rate, with more states losing lawsuits.

Smith foresees more subgroups, such as special education students, suing. "The state has to remedy the situation and that often requires an increase in funding and an overhaul of education, such as in curriculum or teachers' salaries... What we're finding, is that simply increasing funding will not improve student performance. The devil lies in the details: how states target resources."

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity agrees. Molly Hunter, director of legal research at CFE, says putting money into qualified teachers, preschool programs, early literacy programs and small class sizes in early grades have shown to make "a tremendous difference."

Students in small class sizes in the early grades have been shown to achieve more through high school with lower drop-out rates, according to studies in Kentucky, Vermont and New Jersey.

Report: NCLB Fails

After two years, No Child Left Behind has damaged education quality and equity due, in part, to its arbitrary requirements, according to a report by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

U.S. Department of Education officials continue to defend the law, saying it will help all students, particularly at-risk and disadvantaged children, lessen the achievement gap.

Some basic points noted in Failing Our Children: How No Child Left Behind Undermines Quality and Equity in Education and An Accountability Model that Supports School Improvement include:

New Bill Looks to Reduce Failing Schools

What if one of your schools failed NCLB requirements, but the specification it didn't meet has since been altered? Is if fair to keep that school on the the failing list? Democrats on the education committees in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives apparently don't think so. The group is pushing a bill that would eradicate the failing label from schools that didn't make AYP under old rules in 2002-03.

Since the federal law was implemented, the U.S. Department of Education has made four changes in the law, two that relate to and make the law more bearable when testing special education students and Limited English Proficient students.

The changes include: giving leeway in the percentage of students a school may test over two years; giving up to 1 percent of special education students with the most severe cognitive disabilities an alternative test; and giving LEP students, during their first year in U.S. schools, a choice of taking the reading/language arts content assessment in addition to taking the English language proficiency assessment and the math assessment. And it allows states up to two years to include in the LEP students who have attained English proficiency.

Given those changes, thousands of schools on the failing list last year under the old stricter rules should be exempted from the AYP requirements of the 2002-03 year, the bill states.

Under NCLB, if schools accept federal poverty aid and they don't meet the required goals for at least two straight years, they can face sanctions, such as having to offer transfers to a better performing school or risking state takeover.

The bill would help potentially thousands of schools nationwide that did not make AYP in school year 2002-03 due to the absence of clear guidelines on how to include children with disabilities and children with limited English proficiency in their assessments, according to Daniel Kaufman, spokesman for National Education Association.

The schools that didn't make AYP for 2003-04, would still have one year to make improvements and also avoid sanctions under the federal law, according to the bill.

Kaufman mentioned an example of one problem with some of the law's tough requirements. In Florida, district leaders in Volusia County School District set up summer school this year for students that needed extra attention. They had to cancel the program because they needed their Title I money for school transfer options instead, Kaufman says. "They have a solution geared to address the problems and get kids up to speed but they had to cancel it in order to deal with a bureaucratic mandate," Kaufman says.

Tutor Successes

In Georgia's Forsyth County district, two schools needed tutoring services. District leaders sent letters notifying parents of the available services and reached out to parents through a new transition center. The tutors used lesson plans aligned to state standards and classroom lessons. Also, teachers worked with tutors and parents to develop student learning plans and review results of tests.

This example is included in a new DOE guide that shares practical advice and concrete examples from five school districts that offer successful tutoring services in reading and math to Title I-eligible families nationwide.

Creating Strong Supplemental Education Services Programs is the second guide in a series of six booklets on innovative education practices to be released this year. Under NCLB, if after two consecutive years a school with economically disadvantaged students does not meet its academic achievement goals the school is labeled "in need of improvement" and needs to provide supplemental education services.