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Florida schools get boost under new policy

Florida ia the first state to get concessions under NCLB.

TALLAHASSEE - U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced Monday that Florida will get some slack on how it determines whether schools are meeting federal standards under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Florida asked for three changes. Spellings granted two.

The net effect: Had the changes been in place last year, about 400 more schools would have made "adequate yearly progress."

"This is a recognition of the organic process of policymaking," Spellings said at a Tallahassee news conference, alongside Gov. Jeb Bush, Board of Education Chairman Phil Handy and Florida Department of Education Commissioner John Winn.

The changes aren't likely to make No Child more palatable to its critics or reduce what many parents see as confusion when the state and federal grading systems are put side by side.

Last year, nearly 80 percent of Florida schools failed to meet federal standards even though the majority were A and B schools under the state system. Even with the changes approved by Spellings, more than 60 percent of Florida schools would have fallen short last year.

"It's far too little," said Damien Filer, Florida spokesman for Communities for Quality Education, a group with ties to teachers' unions that has been critical of Florida's accountability efforts.

Still, some education observers in Florida liked what they heard.

"Any steps to align our accountability systems are positive," said David Mosrie, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

Spellings agreed to allow Florida to slightly alter the timetable by which its students must meet proficiency standards in reading and math. Under the federal formula, the standard gets higher every three years. Under Florida's plan, the standard would tighten every year, though by smaller increments.

No Child requires all students to be proficient by 2013.

"It smooths out the trajectory but gets us to the same spot," Winn said.

Spellings also agreed to a shift in the state's definition of subgroups that must meet standards. Florida originally imposed a low numerical threshold on those groups, which meant a handful of struggling minority, low-income or special education students could cause an entire school to fall short.

Now the subgroups can be many times larger.

Spellings said flexibility on that point was a nod to Florida's diverse student population, not a means to water down standards.

Florida must "plot the trajectory just like every other state, and they're going to tell me what the art of the possible is," she said. "The first question I'm going to ask is, 'How are the kids doing and are they going to make it to the goal line by 2013?' "

The next round of state and federal report cards for schools is due in June.

No Child Left Behind is the centerpiece of President Bush's education agenda and the most sweeping federal education law in 40 years. In recent months, a slew of states have asked Spellings for flexibility in meeting its key goal, narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

Florida is the first state to win concessions.

Unlike Texas, Utah and Connecticut, states flirting with outright rebellion against No Child, Florida officials have publicly praised No Child's goals and worked behind the scenes to tweak it.

Florida's third request remains under consideration.

— Ron Matus
The Herald


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