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Va., U.S. At Odds Again Over 'No Child' Law

Virginia education officials fired another public volley at their federal counterparts Wednesday in an ongoing battle over the No Child Left Behind Act.

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday rejected two proposals by Virginia. State officials announced this at Wednesday's Virginia Board of Education meeting.

The first would have counted students who fail the first Standards of Learning test, but who pass on the second attempt a short time later, as passing scores - something Virginia does in determining school accreditation ratings. But that first failure will count against the federal "adequate yearly progress" rating for a school, division or state.

"The position the U.S. [Department of Education] is taking is discouraging to schools and young people," said Jo Lynne DeMary, the state superintendent of public instruction. "It flies in the face of the efforts of our own reform and incentives for schools and young people to continue to work hard to pass the test."

Board President Thomas M. Jackson Jr. said he was "astounded by the philosophy that you can't count a retest."

"This accountability system is all about not leaving children behind," he said. "But if the law sets in stone that all children must learn the same material at the same rate at the same time, that is against human nature."

Susan M. Aspey, press secretary for the federal education department, said Virginia's way of counting expedited retakes conflicts with No Child Left Behind's requirement that only the results of the "first official administration" count for purposes of determining whether a school is making adequate progress.

The expedited retakes cannot count, she said, "because in essence that would be taking the test twice. For children who aren't there to take the test because of extenuating circumstances, that's different."

The second proposal has to do with the alternate tests given to students with severe cognitive disabilities. Federal law limits the percentage of passing scores counted by a school system or state to 1 percent of the tested population.

Virginia petitioned the U.S. Education Department to raise that limit to 3.5 percent. That proposal was denied as well.

H. Douglas Cox, the state's assistant superintendent for special education and student services, said: "What was most disappointing was that we never received a single telephone call for clarification. I am bitterly disappointed that we didn't hear anything until we got our rejection notice."

Aspey acknowledged that the federal department only had one telephone conversation on this issue with Virginia officials, last Friday. She said Virginia did not provide evidence that even 1 percent - let alone 3.5 percent - of the total tested population has severe cognitive disabilities.

"We told the state officials if they wanted to come back to us with additional information, we would be happy to talk with them further," she said. "But because they needed a decision for their board meeting, we were unable to grant the request based on the information they provided us."

The invitation for further discussion still applies, Aspey said. She added that Ohio has demonstrated it has more than 1 percent of its students with severe cognitive disabilities, so that state's limit has been raised to 1.3 percent. The federal department is still considering the requests of four other states.

Former state board President Mark Christie launched Virginia's first protest against federal regulations last spring. Earlier this year, the General Assembly adopted a resolution asking Congress to exempt Virginia from No Child Left Behind because it already has its own SOL accountability program.

Roxanne Grossman of Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs, which opposes high-stakes standardized testing programs like Virginia's, said she has problems with the No Child Left Behind Act. But she added that it is "ironic, to say the least, that state officials complain that the feds don't recognize that children don't learn the same things at the same rate."

"A lot of us have said the same thing about our own accountability system for a long time," she said.

Contact Jason Wermers at (804) 649-6831 or jwermers@timesdispatch.com

— Jason Wermers
Richmond Times-Dispatch


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