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Virginia Requesting Exemption From 'No Child' Rules State Tests Hindered, Some Say

RICHMOND, Jan. 19 -- Virginia's Board of Education voted Wednesday to request exemptions from parts of the federal No Child Left Behind law to give the state more flexibility in improving student performance.

Republicans in the General Assembly have introduced bills that would direct the board to request such exemptions. The legislators say the federal act disrupts the state's Standards of Learning testing program, put into place in the 1990s.

The board decided Wednesday to request that the U.S. Education Department exempt Virginia from 10 areas of the law.

Last week, President Bush visited a Fairfax County school to propose extending his signature education initiative into high schools.

The Education Department had rejected some of Virginia's requests during earlier negotiations authorized by the board. But since Margaret Spellings, Bush's nominee to be secretary of education, said recently that she was committed to making No Child Left Behind "workable," educators have expressed new hope about fine-tuning the program.

"I am cautiously optimistic that there will be some opportunities to obtain more flexibility," said Thomas M. Jackson Jr., president of the board.

U.S. Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said it would be inappropriate for her to comment before studying Virginia's proposals. "This law is about every child learning and being able to read and do math at grade level," she said. "We will continue to work with Virginia, as we have all states, on the law's implementation."

Educators and officials in various parts of the country have complained about the impact of the federal law, but leaders in Virginia have been among the most vocal, said Scott Young, education policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Virginia's action could force the Education Department to clearly lay out how much flexibility it will allow, Young said.

The federal law requires yearly testing of students in grades 3 through 8 and dictates serious consequences for schools that do not meet a formula for progress. Subgroups of students, including minorities, disabled students and students with limited English skills, must show yearly improvement, and all students must pass math and reading tests by 2014.

Virginia's system requires that 70 percent of all students pass state standardized tests and does not hold schools specifically responsible for the progress of groups that have traditionally underperformed.

State education leaders have applauded No Child Left Behind's emphasis on looking at achievement by subgroup. Their exemption requests include greater flexibility in the testing of special education students and children with limited English skills. They would also like to be released from the law's requirement that only a student's first attempt at a test be counted when assessing a school's annual progress. Jackson said the policy ignores successful efforts to help students pass subsequent tests.

Virginia would also like to be able to modify the pattern of sanctions imposed against schools that have not met the law's standards for progress -- such as offering private tutoring to students before allowing them to change schools instead of the other way around.

The push in the General Assembly for No Child Left Behind exemptions represents an endorsement of the board's action by some of the legislature's most conservative members.

House Republican Caucus leader R. Steven Landes (Augusta) is sponsoring one of several bills requesting flexibility in areas of the law considered "duplicative" of Virginia's system or "lacking in cost effectiveness."

"In Virginia, we've already got a system in place that's working, that is well thought out and actually has evolved," he said. "No Child Left Behind just forces another layer which doesn't meld or fit well with our program."

Landes said his bill is an attempt to work with regulators rather than reject the federal law -- and about $350 million in federal education spending.

"The Republican Party is a diverse party and a big party, and I think we can disagree agreeably about divergent views," he said.

At the same time, said Del. Gary A. Reese (R-Fairfax), Virginia's leaders are poised to offer critiques of the federal law because they engaged in a long fight to gain credibility for the state's own school accountability rules, the Standards of Learning tests.

"I fought in the trenches for SOLs for 10 longs years and had parents and teacher stand up and tell me SOLs were terrible and horrible; in truth, they turned out to be right for Virginia," he said. "We may easily be heard where others might not."

— Rosalind S. Helderman and Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post


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