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20 States Ask for Flexibility in School Law

Ohanian Comment: Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. When will people say they're as mad as hell and aren't going to do this any more?

By Diana Jean Schemo

WASHINGTON, Feb. 21 The federal Education Department has agreed to review requests from 20 states to alter significantly the way they measure student progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. The move comes as the number of schools across the country deemed substandard under that law grows by the thousands.

The requests, which Education Secretary Margaret Spellings invited states to submit last November as part of a pilot project, would allow states to judge schools by tracking the progress of individual students over time.

Currently, schools must show improvement in successive grades of students, with more of this year's fifth graders, for example, proficient at reading and math compared with last year's fifth graders.

States have long sought such a change, contending that it is fairer to measure the improvement in individual students than in different groups of students.

The states that have applied to make the changes for the current school year are Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah.

Six more Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Dakota have asked to apply changes next year.

Only 10 states will be permitted to make the changes in assessing this year's test results. The plans must still be reviewed by a government-appointed panel and receive approval from federal officials, expected by May, to move forward.

The department's willingness to consider the requests is the most recent in a series of steps Ms. Spellings has offered, amid growing legal and political challenges to the law, to give states more flexibility in complying with it.

Under the outlines they submitted, many states are also suggesting that they be permitted to count students as proficient in reading or math even if they are not, so long as they are on track to reach proficiency within two, three or four years, depending on the proposal.

These states, along with some education advocates, contend that schools whose students are struggling should receive credit for improving their achievement, even if they have not reached proficiency, because it is unrealistic to expect them to do so in a single year.

In the 2004-05 school year, the share of high-poverty schools that failed to make enough yearly progress under the law jumped by 50 percent, to 9,000 from 6,000 the year before. There are 50,000 high-poverty schools in the United States, for whom failing to make enough progress sets off a cascade of extra attention, as well as eventual punishments, including the possible closure of the school.

In inviting the proposals, however, Ms. Spellings said the department would not compromise on certain "core principles" of the law, including the requirements that all students reach proficiency in reading and math by 2014, and that schools break down student performance by race, ethnicity, income, disability and gender.

Ross Wiener, policy director at the Education Trust, a nonprofit group in Washington that helped write No Child Left Behind, said that after years of criticism of the law the proposals that states submitted were their first opportunity to say how they would measure adequate yearly progress, the linchpin of the law.

"It really brings into relief, this question, this issue that has been simmering" around the law, Mr. Wiener said. "How much growth is ambitious enough that you're being fair to kids versus what's fair to schools and school systems?"

Lou Fabrizio, accountability services director at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said his state's proposal would offer a second and third chance to schools that initially failed to meet federal guidelines.

If the rate of progress students were making showed they would reach proficiency within four years, they would be counted as already being proficient, for purposes of judging school performance.

Under North Carolina's proposal, Dr. Fabrizio said, the number of schools deemed failing to make adequate annual progress last year would have dropped by 13 percent, to 810 schools from 932.

— Diana Jean Schemo
New York Times


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