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Schools Chiefs Seek Changes In Testing Law

School superintendents representing 17 Washington area districts and two Catholic school systems presented a plan yesterday to fix what they consider the most damaging part of the federal No Child Left Behind law -- the annual testing of nearly all disabled and limited English-speaking students.

In a proposal to the U.S. Department of Education, the superintendents asked that students with limited English skills be given less demanding tests at the beginning of their schooling and that special education students be given tests judged appropriate to their disability.

The superintendents said that Education Department officials, in a private meeting yesterday, gave little hope of changes to the special education rules anytime soon but hinted at possible easing of the test rules for limited English speakers.

"They seemed very much interested in looking at changes [for limited English speakers] fairly quickly," said Superintendent Jack Dale of Frederick County.

Dale and three other representatives of the Washington Area School Study Council -- Superintendents Jerry D. Weast of Montgomery County and Robert G. Smith of Arlington County, along with former Arlington Superintendent Arthur Gosling, the council's executive director -- attended the meeting with two federal officials.

The local school leaders said their plan would eliminate the frustration and wasted time of giving tests that students cannot comprehend without further help or instruction. Their proposed regulatory changes, which could be made without Congress having to amend the law, reflect complaints heard in schools throughout the country. Ronald Tomalis, counselor to Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige, said, "We are open to any ideas" for improving the law's regulations.

No Child Left Behind requires annual testing of 95 percent of children in grades 3 through 8 and in high school. It requires schools whose students fail to improve at a steady rate to pay for extra tutoring or for transportation to allow students to transfer to higher-achieving schools.

The law lets schools test limited English speakers in their native language for up to three years, but the Washington area superintendents said that approach is too expensive because dozens of different languages are spoken by their students. In addition, many recent immigrant students are not literate in their native tongues.

Weast complained this year that schools in his district judged not to have made adequate progress under the law were penalized for giving special accommodations -- such as teachers reading parts of the test -- in accordance with special education law.

The superintendents said they have no quarrel with holding all schools accountable for their students' progress. But they worry that the law's good parts might be overturned if enough teachers and parents are alienated by tough tests for students who have not had time to overcome severe academic problems.

"We tried to come across that we are not the enemy," Weast said.

The No Child Left Behind law sticks a "needs improvement" label not only on schools whose whole student bodies fail to reach annual improvement targets but also on schools that have even a single subgroup of students that fails to reach its target.

The subgroups include special education students and students with limited English skills, as well as low-income students and various racial minorities.

Once a student's academic work improves to the point where she is no longer labeled special education or limited English, her scores are not counted as part of that subgroup. The superintendents said this penalized schools for doing a good job, since taking the highest scores out of a subgroup made it less likely it would reach its annual target.

They asked that any students who left the limited English or special education subgroups because of high scores be still counted as part of those groups for two years. They also asked that special education students be tested under the conditions agreed to in their individual education plans and that limited English students be given tests easier than the tests at their grade level required by the law.

— Jay Mathews
Schools Chiefs Seek Changes In Testing Law
Washington Post


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