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State, feds still at odds over school testing

Ohanian Comment: The story keeps repeating but each new version has a few new details. As in this bright lines quote. Anybody know what bright lines are? Must be a business metaphor: assembly lines? Lineup? Straight lines? Line in the sand?

Spellings spokeswoman Susan Aspey. "Alternative testing came up. But annual testing is one of the bright lines in the statute that the secretary refers to, and that's not up for negotiation."

WASHINGTON -- Connecticut education officials made little headway Monday in their dispute with the federal government over annual school testing, leaving them on course to file the first legal challenge against the new requirements.

Connecticut Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg and other state officials met for one hour with U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings in Washington.

Afterward, they said there is only about a 1 percent chance that they will get a waiver for the No Child Left Behind education act's requirements for testing in grades three, five and seven. State officials had sought periodic assessments of those students instead of testing, because Connecticut already tests students in grades four, six, eight and 10.

The only progress made during the meeting, said Sternberg and state Board of Education Chairman Allan B. Taylor, was a thaw in the relationship between the two sides.

"The tenor of the conversation changed," Taylor said. "I don't think anything else was conclusive."

Federal officials agreed there is little chance they will give in on the annual testing requirement of President Bush's No Child Left Behind law.

"They left some material with us that the attorneys were going to take a look at," said Spellings spokeswoman Susan Aspey. "Alternative testing came up. But annual testing is one of the bright lines in the statute that the secretary refers to, and that's not up for negotiation."

And while Spellings did not ask the state to drop its intention file a lawsuit over the school reform law, Sternberg said "they are clearly concerned about the lawsuit."

Connecticut's planned legal challenge is expected to focus on a lack of federal funding for states to implement changes mandated by the law. No Child says states and school districts will not have to spend their own money to meet the law's requirements.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said there are no plans to drop the lawsuit.

"We are reaching out to other states that may wish to join us," he said. "But we will not be satisfied with platitudes and pleasantries. There must be more than soothing assurances. There has to be a clear binding commitment to eliminate unfunded mandates for Connecticut and its cities and towns."

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., added, "My hope is that the secretary of education will understand that one size fits all doesn't necessarily work here. And, secondly, get some money back up here. Federal mandates without resources are just wrong."

State and federal officials have been sparring over new annual testing requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act, which became law in 2002. State officials say more tests won't tell educators more than they already know from Connecticut's Mastery Test, considered one of the most rigorous in the nation.

Monday's meeting came after several requests by state officials, and a sharp exchange between Spellings and Sternberg in recent days.

Two weeks ago, on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Spellings criticized Connecticut's plans to file a legal challenge and said the state's attitude toward minority students is "un-American." She referred to Connecticut's gap in test scores between minority students in urban schools and their white peers in the suburbs, coupled with the state's opposition to the federal law.

Sternberg fired back in a blunt letter, saying the name-calling was outrageous, and "I have higher expectations of the secretary of education and would suggest that, at a minimum, an apology is in order."

But on Monday, Sternberg said, no explicit apology was offered. Instead, she said the meeting was cordial and focused on the education issues. Connecticut officials outlined the progress the state has made in testing of minority students, and told Spellings that state law will not allow them to spend more money for testing than is already approved.

Aspey said federal officials expect to respond to the state's alternative testing proposal in a few days.

— Lolita C. Baldor, Associated Press
Boston Globe
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