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Ohanian Comment: This is news because it's the Washington Post saying that something is wrong with No Child Left Behind. It's not much, but right now we'll take what we can get.

THE MORE WE LEARN about how the No Child Left Behind Act is working in practice, the more we wonder whether it isn't time for Congress to look again at the legislation it passed, with the enthusiastic support of the president, nearly two years ago. According to the complex rules set out under this federal law, states are required not only to show overall progress on tests but progress within specific groups, such as the learning-disabled and those who do not speak English. These rules contain a number of anomalies (such as: when a non-English speaker becomes an English speaker, does that count as progress for the non-English-speaking subgroup, or not?) partly thanks to which few Virginia school districts -- and none in Northern Virginia -- managed to post enough progress to comply with federal law. Some of the "failed" schools are in the best districts in the state.

This result was widely predicted. Virginia Board of Education President Mark Christie argues that the state has actually been penalized by the law because it adopted the Standards of Learning, its own testing system, before it was required to do so by federal law. That means that while Virginia is ahead of the nation on some national tests, many of its school districts appear not to be progressing as fast as other states, which are starting from a lower base. While these results have shone some useful light on the need to educate Northern Virginia's non-English-speaking students, at a deeper level this state of affairs seems to defeat the purpose of the law: If too many good schools and school districts are deemed to be failing, then that label will lose its significance. Congress should consider allowing states to devise ways to set and meet their own standards and alter the rigid and sometimes illogical accountability rules so that they make sense.

There are other conclusions to draw as well. One is that the administration, which has focused on this "standards" issue above all else, now needs to look harder at some other sections of the original No Child Left Behind Act. Schools have paid so much attention to the complex accountability standards that many appear to have ignored other parts of the legislation, particularly those that call for improvement in teacher quality. The Education Trust, an advocacy group, has recently published a report showing that the teacher-quality standards have been ignored and diluted -- presumably because hiring good teachers costs a lot more than just administering tests. What is the value of tests without good teachers to help students succeed on them? The law needs revisiting.

— Editorial
Making the Grade
Washington Post
Sept. 14, 2003


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