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Educators Ask U. S. For Break on "No Child"

Education officials in three dozen states, including Illinois, are proposing substantial changes to their No Child Left Behind requirements--alterations that would relax standards and make it easier for schools to show improvement under the tough federal law.

In Illinois, for example, if just one of the planned modifications were applied to last year's test results, the number of poor-performing schools would drop by about one quarter. In Florida, it would plummet to
68 percent of all schools, from 89 percent.

By law, states can ask to revamp their accountability plans every year.
But the rash of amendment requests was spurred, in part, by the federal government's recent decision to give states far more leeway in meeting the law's mandates. The U.S. Department of Education expects that virtually every state will apply for changes by the end of the month.

Federal and state officials say the mid-course alterations are necessary as states work out the kinks in the complicated and far-reaching education reform, which requires schools and districts to meet annual achievement goals in math and reading and sanctions those that do not.

But critics charge that educators--stung by the public relations nightmare of low-performing schools and districts--have spent too much time devising ways to help schools appear more successful.

"I am not suggesting that anyone has an ulterior motive, but these changes are unacceptable if they are done simply for PR purposes or to make it easier for schools to show adequate yearly progress," said Daria Hall, a policy analyst with Education Trust, a non-profit group that supports the law. "If you make changes just to make your schools look better, then you are denying children, or groups of children, the help that they need. It certainly violates the spirit of the law."

The attempts to relax standards come as states and school districts nationwide are rebelling against No Child Left Behind, President Bush's signature domestic policy.

Last month, Utah lawmakers voted to sidestep some of the act's mandates and, by doing so, potentially gave up $76 million in federal funds.

And the nation's largest teachers union and seven school districts filed a lawsuit last month claiming the act is onerous and under-funded.

Illinois and 36 other states have opted for a less confrontational approach. Motivated, in part, by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings' decision last month to allow more flexibility, states are asking the federal government to let them ease regulations on how student test scores are analyzed and troubled schools are identified.

No Child Left Behind requires schools to test students annually in math and reading in 3rd through 8th grade and once in high school. By law, the entire school as well as specific subgroups of children--based on race, income and special education status--must meet standards on state exams. If even one subgroup fails to measure up, the school is tagged as troubled. The achievement targets inch up every year, until 2014, when 100 percent of children are expected to pass the exams.

Districts are judged by the same standards.

States already are given a great deal of leeway in how they carry out the law. For example, they can select their own tests, set their own pass rates each year and determine how many children make up a subgroup.

Tinkering with the subgroup size and the pass rates are two of the most common modifications states are seeking this time around.

In Illinois, if a school or a district has 40 or more low-income students, it must ensure that those students meet reading and math standards. But if there are only 39 low-income students, there are not enough to make a subgroup and the school or the district does not have to meet the standard for low income students.

In a letter to Spellings, Illinois officials asked to bump the subgroup size up to 50 or 15 percent of the total test-taking population, whichever is greater. They also asked to increase the subgroup size for special education students to 60 or 15 percent of all test takers.

Only 11 percent of Illinois schools have at least 40 special education students. If the number were upped to the proposed rate, only 1 percent of all schools in the state would have enough special education children to even qualify a subgroup, according to the state's letter.

The number of districts with a special education subgroup would drop to 174, from 452 districts, according to a Tribune analysis.

Gail Lieberman, special assistant to the Illinois superintendent of education, said the proposed subgroup change is not an attempt to escape the poor-performing label.

"If you have a system where every school is labeled as `needs improvement' and every subgroup fails to make state standards, it's pretty tough to know where to focus your efforts," she said.

By law, schools that fail to meet state goals two years in a row are tagged as "needs improvement" and must allow students to transfer to better campuses and pay for their transportation. The federal sanctions apply only to schools that accept federal poverty money.

In Illinois, a school lands on the "needs improvement" list if the school or a subgroup fails to meet state standards two years in a row in reading, or two years in a row in math. If, for example, a school's white students fail to measure up in reading one year and the Asian-American students fail reading the next year, the school goes on the list.

Under the new proposal, however, a school or district would go on the list only if the same subgroup failed the same subject two years in a row.

If those standards were applied to last year's test results, the number of troubled schools would drop by 23 percent and the number of districts by 20 percent, according to the state's analysis.

Many other states already have tried to use this identification method only to be turned down by federal officials.

But Ray Simon, acting deputy secretary of education, said his agency is willing to reconsider the issue. In fact, Simon said his agency would consider any proposal that does not violate the law's central tenets, such as annual testing and the mandate to break down scores by race, income-level and special education status.

Joe Kallas, principal at Peterson Elementary on Chicago's North Side, said he is not opposed to the state's current system.His school met state standards in every category last year except special education. If the changes were adopted, Kallas' school would not have enough special education students to count as a subgroup.

"I want to be held accountable for the way my special education children perform, and I think it's right to hold me accountable for every single one of them," Kallas said. "I have a bigger problem with the way they test special education children and the way they insist on punishing schools that are improving, but not fast enough. I think we should all spend more time on helping children succeed and less time worrying about the data points and the statistical analysis part of this law."

— Stephanie Banchero
Chicago Tribune


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