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Maybe Minnesota Is Getting Ready for an NCLB Politico Meltdown

Ohanian Comment: You know we're making progress when reporters append controversial to NCLB instead of reform, child-saving, innovative, accountability system.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke criticized a new report Thursday that predicts 80 percent to 100 percent of the state's elementary schools will fail to meet federal proficiency standards by 2014, saying the projection is "wildly off.''

But Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles defended his agency's assessment of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, saying his staff was careful not too make too dire or optimistic predictions.

The unusual spat between a state commissioner and the nonpartisan oversight agency of the Legislature shows a growing concern in Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration for the nascent movement against the controversial education accountability program.

Supporters of the 2-year-old federal law, including President Bush, say its increased student testing and proficiency standards for schools hold education accountable in an unprecedented way. Critics say it oversteps traditional federal boundaries on local education decisions and sets up public schools for failure by establishing unattainable benchmarks.

Concerns about the rising rhetoric over No Child Left Behind during an election year have prompted national Republican officials to mount an aggressive defense, including a trip to Minnesota last week by U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige.

That defense of No Child Left Behind was visible again Thursday as Yecke took the podium immediately after Nobles finished his presentation to the House Education Policy Committee.

The report "paints a negative picture of No Child Left Behind that I think is inaccurate,'' Yecke said. "The fact is 2014 is a long ways away. There will be changes in the law before that time.''

Her chief complaints are that the report did not assume Congress would make any changes in the law, nor would it increase education spending. Nobles responded that his staff had to assume the law would be implemented as it is currently written.

"I think it's unfair and unfounded criticism. She is saying we should have incorporated speculation into our study,'' Nobles said. "I'm disappointed the commissioner would use what I consider inappropriate criticism.''

The legislative auditor's report raises new questions about the implementation of the sweeping federal education law.

The prediction of widespread failure of schools to make what the law calls "adequate yearly progress'' is based on a series of models the legislative auditor's office developed with University of Minnesota researchers. The gap between 80 percent to 100 percent of schools not making proficiency goals is based on differing assumptions on how well student test scores can be expected to improve over the next decade.

One lawmaker said the report made him decide to support opting out of the No Child Left Behind law and forgo its accompanying federal funding. Wednesday's report predicted such a move would jeopardize more than $200 million in annual federal funding. The Senate Education Committee tentatively approved such a proposal last week on a bipartisan vote.

"This report from our own nonpartisan auditors has convinced me the entire No Child Left Behind plan is deeply flawed,'' said House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul, who now supports opting out of the federal program.

Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, said the report raises troubling issues about the law, but says he wants to explore alternatives to opting out.

"Even with our best efforts, over 80 percent of our schools won't keep up,'' said Kelley, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "The most important finding is that the way Congress wrote No Child Left Behind, it is designed to cause public schools to fail.''

Lawmakers requested the legislative auditor's report last year. Enacted two years ago, No Child Left Behind is causing increased concern from states across the country as more of its provisions take effect. The law requires states to develop accountability systems that judge schools on how well they move students to proficiency in reading and math. All students are expected to reach proficiency by the 2013-14 school years.

Yecke said No Child Left Behind's requirements to report student scores by subgroups means high-quality education states like Minnesota cannot mask segments of under-performing students through a high student average on statewide tests.

"No Child Left Behind has served its purpose well by forcing us to confront these serious issues and challenging the status quo,'' Yecke said of the disparity between achievement of white students and students of color.


Auditor's report: www.auditor.leg.state.mn.us

A bill that would remove Minnesota from No Child Left Behind requirements, SF1921: www.leg.state.mn.us.

Previous stories on No Child Left Behind are on www.twincities.com. Click on "Politics," then "Archived political stories."


No Child Left Behind requires increased testing and new accountability systems. Schools that fail to meet the law's proficiency requirements will have to offer free tutoring and after-school assistance and may be forced to make major changes.

The legislative auditor reviewed how the law will affect Minnesota and concluded:

Many schools will be tagged as underperforming in as little as five years. By 2008, the report estimates, between 34 percent and 60 percent will be in that category. The study estimates 81 percent to 96 percent of schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul will fail to meet state expectations.

The state does not yet have a plan for "corrective" action against schools that fail to make the list for five or more years. Pawlenty suggested last month that the state should be given powers to take over such schools but lawmakers have reacted skeptically. Assuming no improvement in test scores, by 2008 13 percent of schools will be in that category and by 2014 it will be 74 percent.

The major reason for the increase in under-performing schools is a ramp-up in expectations toward a 100 percent proficiency goal in the 2013-14 school year. Proficiency expectations start with a 2003 baseline and begin increasing in 2005.

Superintendents said the law is unrealistic, costly and punitive. But 51 percent said they opposed the state withdrawing from the act while 17 percent supported it.

In 2005, Minnesota will receive $42 million more from the federal government than it did before No Child Left Behind. But it's unclear if No Child Left Behind provides enough money to pay for the increased testing and other programs it requires. One problem was calculating the costs of the new curriculum replacing the Profile of Learning graduation standards. The Profile was very unpopular and may have been replaced anyway, though No Child Left Behind probably brought about a quicker death.

— John Welsh
Yecke blasts 'No Child' analysis
Pioneer Press


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