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Inside The Law

Inside the Law

Legal issues at national, state and local levels

New Science Targets Fall In Nearly Half the Union

Nearly half of the states in the U.S. fail or nearly fail when it comes to teaching statewide academic standards in science for primary and secondary grades.

The first comprehensive study of science academic standards since 2000, The State of State Science Standards 2005, sponsored and published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, reviewed the quality of each state's K-12 science standards as the No Child Left Behind Act will mandate testing in this subject in 2008.

Fifteen states flunked and another seven had "D" grades. Nine states and Washington, D.C., only earned "C" grades based on how well the standards met criteria including if the standards had clear and fair expectations by grade level, and if the standards were organized in a sensible way, showing logical progression from grade to grade and easily navigated so teachers and parents could understand them.

The "A" states include California, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, South Carolina and Virginia.

Low-scoring states shared common pitfalls such as missing facts and concepts that are integral to physics, chemistry and biology and had an obsession with discovery learning, which is leaving children to uncover scientific concepts without guiding them to the underlying core of scientific knowledge.

And as in 2000, 12 states do an "awful job" addressing evolution, or in one case, explaining it, but they also do the same job addressing the rest of science, says lead author Paul R. Gross.

Notable Quotable

Margaret Spellings, U.S. Secretary of Education, on ELL learners:

"We now have proof that high standards and accountability are paying off. Our national report card shows that scores are rising and English-language learners are achieving record highs."

In New York, researchers from Johns Hopkins University helped K-5 teachers learn research-based reading instruction for Spanish-speaking children. "No wonder reading scores for New York's Hispanic fourth graders are among the highest in America's cities. Minority students in New York are surpassing the national average in fourth grade reading and math."

A National Voice Goes to Congress

Two years' worth of nationwide hearings and survey responses from educators, civic and community leaders and even students will be sent to Congress this spring as they look to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind bill in 2007.

The Public Education Network has worked with local partners to gather panels of business, civic and community leaders along with parents and high school students to discuss what they want to see changed or modified in the federal law.

An online survey found on the PEN Web site and other youth Web sites is also gathering ideas and suggestions from about 20,000 people, according to Arnold Fege, director of public engagement and advocacy for Public Education Network.

Concerns from people range from the consequences of poor performance in schools as well as testing requirements that put all students in one big pile.

"People still don't know No Child Left Behind," Fege says. "Teachers don't see the link between home and family and achievement. NCLB has almost squeezed out parents."

Panelists also want to see more weight given to individual student progress, as opposed to this year's fourth graders compared to last year's fourth graders and they want high stakes tests, which states created to measure proficiency in subjects every year, replaced by diagnostic tests that show strengths and weaknesses among individual students.

But Fege did note that the U.S. Department of Education's move to allow up to 10 states to try a pilot growth model--where states can give credit to schools for individual student growth even if test scores don't meet state standards--as a sign that the government is slowly getting it.

Meanwhile, the Senate and House of Representatives in December cut funding for NCLB by $1 billion, even as district leaders and other educators have complained and charged that not enough federal money was put into the law as was promised. The cut means funding is below the level given three years ago.

The report will be likely given to Congress in March or April.

Students with Disabilities Get More Flexibility

After educators complained about No Child Left Behind rules for students with disabilities, the U.S. Department of Education proposed new regulations in December to measure the achievement of students with disabilities under the federal law. The proposal is to help students who may not reach grade levels at the same time as others. But they can make strides with appropriate instruction, says Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. The National Education Association applauded the move, but says bigger change is needed. "Little by little, the department has agreed with teachers that not every child learns the same way or at the same speed," says NEA President Reg Weaver.

Here are some proposals:

States can develop modified achievement standards and give assessments based on those standards.

States may deem a student proficient from the modified assessment for determining Adequate Yearly Progress, capped at 2 percent of the total testing population at the district and state levels.

States continue to include proficient scores for students with the biggest cognitive disabilities,capped at 1 percent of the total testing population.

States can include within the "students with disabilities" subgroup the test scores of students previously identified as having disabilities up to two years after they no longer receive special education services.

New Center Helps Rural Schools

The Center for Rural Education was recently created by the U.S. Department of Education to help improve academic achievement among youths in rural schools, in part as promised under No Child Left Behind.

Nearly 42 percent of the nation's public schools are in rural or small towns. A primary goal of the center, housed within the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, would be to update The Condition of Education in Rural Schools, a U.S. Department of Education report last released in 1994. The center will also organize focus groups and forums to highlight issues facing rural education.