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Inside The Law

Inside the Law

Analyzing, Debating and Explaining No Child Left Behind

Did the Tail Wag the Dog?

The jury is still out as far as how much some state rule changes in accountability plans for No Child Left Behind affected schools' performances last year.

In spring 2004, 47 states asked the U.S. Department of Education to approve changes to their NCLB accountability plans, which softened rules to meet goals under the law. The department posted letters last October to 35 states on its Web site approving many changes requested. The Center on Education Policy analyzed those letters. More schools and districts stayed off state watch lists this year than past years but the question remains: Did students make greater academic gains this time around or did the softening of state rules make the difference?

"I believe teachers are trying very hard and raising test scores, and schools are doing better according to criteria under No Child Left Behind," says Jack Jennings, executive director of Center on Education Policy, an independent advocate for public education.

But to the degree schools were removed from state watch lists due to the changes as opposed to academic gains, Jennings doesn't know if it's 5 percent, 20 percent or something else. He guesses that only a "minority" of schools was kept off watch lists due to recent changes in accountability plans.

The changes come about mainly because administrators are feeling intense pressure to raise test scores so they look for more flexibility under the law, Jennings says. "Most states feel the law is too rigid," he says. But parents are more apt to push for more strict measures so students are educated to their highest potential regardless of the school.

Pennsylvania, for example, had changes in its plan approved, claiming it originally had extremely ambitious accountability targets. Changes included using a confidence interval that is like a margin of error so that if student test results fall slightly below a target but within a window they are counted as having met the target. Twelve states used confidence intervals or changed the way they plan to use them to determine AYP, CEP reports.

Pennsylvania and 25 other states also adopted more lenient English language learner rules, counting the progress of former ELL for two years after they reach English proficiency and, thus, making it easier for the subgroup to show progress.

Under the proposed changes, 149 more Pennsylvania schools met math targets and 164 more schools met reading targets, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Ethan Cancell, special assistant to the state's education secretary, adds that every grade and subgroup showed a 3.8 percentage point gain in math, a true "success" story.

"We do think it's a better representation" of how students are doing, says Jeff Smink, director of federal relations for the state education department.

High Schools: The Next Frontier To Tackle

The nation's governors will take a crack at improving U.S. high schools at a special conference next month in Washington, D.C. The National Education Summit on High Schools will focus on increasing graduation rates and ensuring that high school graduates are prepared to succeed in higher education and the workplace.

The meeting will bring together governors from all 50 states and five U.S. territories with top business executives and education leaders. NGA Chairman and Virginia Governor Mark Warner will co-chair the session with Achieve Vice Chair Kerry Killinger, CEO of Washington Mutual, a financial services company.

"We're looking for some actions that governors can take back to their states and implement quickly, cheaply and on a system-wide basis," says Warner. He wants governors to address ways to reduce high school dropouts, improve curricula, and attract higher-quality teachers into hard-to-staff schools.

President Bush said during his reelection campaign that high school students should pass more achievement tests before graduating. But "tests without remediation is not the right approach," says Warner. "If you have high standards, you have to go the extra mile in helping kids meet those standards."

"If Bush wants more testing, he should fund ways to remedy the problems identified by the testing," agrees Jack Jennings, director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, an independent advocate for public education.

--Alan Dessoff

More People Unite for More Changes in Law

In yet another attempt to change the No Child Left Behind law, more than two dozen national education, civil rights, disability, children's and citizens' groups are asking Congress this year to refocus the federal law on positive measurements and solutions.

The signed statement comes on the heels of the proposed No Child Left Behind Improvement Act of 2004 from a Senate committee and Center on Education Policy's forums to discuss workable alternatives to the law. The proposal, which is considered unprecedented given the various groups supporting it, offers five areas for change: progress measurement; assessments; building capacity; sanctions; and funding.

"We accept the goal [of NCLB], we accept reporting and disaggregation of data but... the federal government needs to direct the focus on the institutional problems that are causing the low level of learning we have now," says Gary Ratner, executive director of Citizens for Effective Schools, one of the participating groups. "Unless the curriculum that is taught is at a challenging level by very competent teachers who are engaging students, the kids are not going to learn at the level that is expected."

Joel Packer, manager for ESEA policy at National Education Association, another participating group, says the bottom line is that test scores are not the end all, be all, but they are important. The uniqueness of the proposal comes from the fact that various groups, such as Children's Defense Fund, NAACP and School Social Work Association of America, signed the document. "It really is the only document that tries to bring together various communities of people and come up with some consensus," he says.

Ratner adds that states and localities need the capacity to give technical assistance and guidance that districts need. There is a "huge need" to train people who can lead massive changes in districts, he says. It's not just about after-school programs or transferring from one school to another, he says.

Here are some recommended changes:

Promising Practices For No Child

The U.S. Department of Education features successful and promising practices in education in the new No Child Left Behind booklet, Innovations in Education: Alternative Routes to Teacher Certification.

Promising alternative routes include recruiting widely, selecting carefully; designing a choherent and flexible program; providing extensive support, and engaging in continuous improvement.

The highlighted and successful programs in the booklet include: Georgia Alternative Preparation Program of Northwest and Metro Regional Educational Service Agencies; Educator Certification Program, Region 13 in Austin; Alternative Certification Program in Hillsborough, Fla.; New York City Teaching Fellows; Northeastern California Partnership for Special Education in Chico; and Wichita Area Transition to Teaching of Wichita, Kan.

Teachers Say Student Performance Unaffected by Law

More than 68 percent of primary and secondary school teachers think test scores or students' performances have not improved in their classes since No Child Left Behind was implemented, according to a recent Teacher Opinion Poll.

The American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences polled 2,084 AAFCS teacher members in the U.S. and only 231 teachers responded.

About 62 percent of teachers said they did not think NCLB had enhanced or would enhance the education of students. Slightly more than 37 percent thought it did or would enhance education.