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State plans to ease No Child requirements

By Nirvi Shah

The goal of the federal No Child Left Behind law was simple, if ambitious: every kid in America reading and doing math on grade level by 2014.

But Friday, Florida clouded that simplicity with more requests to relax the way students' progress in those subjects is measured.

With federal government approval, it will be OK to say students who have improved their test scores in the past but are still working below grade level are passing. It will also be OK to say that black students who are worse readers than their white classmates are passing if the black students show that they are improving faster than average students elsewhere in the state.

The state predicts that if the changes are allowed, more than 100 additional schools will be able to say they meet the requirements of the federal law this school year, compared with the number last school year. If the changes are denied, more schools will fail in 2006 than did last year.

In 2005, 64 percent of schools statewide including at least 111 schools in Palm Beach County didn't make adequate progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

State Education Commissioner John Winn noted that the federal Department of Education solicited the changes. He argues that fundamentally, Florida would still be honoring the spirit of the 4-year-old federal law and that the changes would give a truer picture of what's happening in Florida schools rather than providing an incomplete snapshot of performance.

"We're true to the overall concept of requiring improvement over year after year," Winn said.

The way the No Child law works now, students in nine categories such as black, disabled and poor within every school must be reading and doing math on grade level by 2014. Until then, states set their own goals for how many students must be passing state reading and math tests for a school to be meeting the federal law. This year in Florida, for example, 44 percent of each group at a school must be reading at grade level and 50 percent of kids in each group must be doing math on grade level. Otherwise, the school is labeled failing.

This is the second time Florida is tinkering with its version of the federal law. Last year, changes in the way students were counted eliminated the scores of nearly 7,000 students in Palm Beach County.

One of the changes proposed Friday would work like this: A student who isn't working at grade level, but who is improving her test scores each year would be considered passing if her past progress shows she would be working on grade level within three years. But there is no penalty for a school if a student never actually improves, said Hanna Skandera, state deputy commissioner of accountability, research and measurement.

"We haven't crossed that bridge," she said.

If that change is allowed this year, the state predicts 1,237 schools would pass No Child Left Behind this year, compared with 1,116 last year. If the changes aren't allowed, fewer schools will pass: 916, the state predicts.

The other change prevents a school from being penalized if groups of kids who aren't working at grade level have improved their scores more than their peers statewide. In other words, only 20 percent of Hispanic students at a school could be working on grade level in math. That would mean the entire school would fail the No Child standards in Florida this year. But if the percentage of Hispanic students who passed math increased more than the percentage of students who passed math statewide no matter how low the school would be credited for their scores, not penalized. That's even if 70 percent of white students at the same school were passing math.

If this second change is allowed, even more schools will pass the federal standards: 1,327, or 211 more than last year.

Every state has the right to interpret the No Child law differently, although the ultimate goal is the same: all kids working on grade level eight years from now.

The very nature of the way No Child Left Behind is administered, with each state coming up with its own method of following the law, leaves its noble intentions unrequited, a report by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University found this month.

"The law sets out what seem to be very clear goals and consequences," Gary Orfield writes in the report's foreword. "However, as researchers predicted before the law was enacted, huge numbers of schools would be branded as failures, including many that are seen as successes and often have rising achievement levels. In response, the administration is permitting a wide variety of changes that lower the failure rate."

The federal government said as many as 10 states would have a chance to change their No Child grading formulas this year, but they probably won't hear whether their proposals are approved until May.

Florida has an incentive to get the changes approved: the way the state grades schools using letters A through F based on FCAT scores in reading, math and writing also considers whether students are improving from one year to the next. Winn said the dueling No Child grading system and the state's grading system have been confusing for parents and schools. The state's system, however, dilutes the scores of students with disabilities and students who aren't in the majority at their schools, the very thing the No Child law was designed to counteract.

Some state education leaders applaud the change for that very reason: The state and federal systems clash and scores of schools are being penalized. Just this year 675 schools were required to offer free tutoring. The money to pay for it comes from the same pot of federal money designed to pay for extra teachers and materials at schools with many poor students.

A nirvi_shah@pbpost.com

— Nirvi Shah
Palm Beach Post



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