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Reform Bills Could Set Schools Up for Failure

Education: Even strong campuses might fall short of standards being debated in Congress.


President George W. Bush came to Washington promising Texas-style education reform. So, at his behest, the Senate and House produced bills providing for more testing, more money to help schools shape up and more pressure on those that don't.

But on the eve of work in Congress to reconcile the two bills' differences, serious doubts are emerging about their fairness and feasibility.

Essentially, a fiery national debate has erupted over how to define failure.

Although the goal is to identify schools where students most desperately need better instruction, independent analyses indicate the current House and Senate proposals actually would label far more schools unsuccessful than is warranted or practical.

In fact, new research suggests that if either the Senate or House rules had been applied to Texas or North Carolina in the 1990s, when schools in both states were recognized for exceptional achievement, virtually no school would have passed muster every year.

Criticism of the congressional proposals comes from across the political spectrum. And it has led to an 11th-hour scramble to come up with something better.

. Much is at stake, both politically and academically. While running for president, Bush repeatedly promised to "leave no child behind" and to stop "subsidizing failure."

But fears are growing that, in its zeal to accomplish those goals, Congress may overreach and squander the political consensus on the importance of boosting student achievement. Or that the new laws will become so watered down as to become meaningless.

"The president wants vigorous but workable accountability," said Sandy Kress, a Dallas lawyer who is serving as Bush's chief negotiator on the education reform bill.

In the search for such a delicately balanced policy, the administration has turned for help to some unlikely allies: teacher unions and other groups that Republicans usually categorize as defenders of the status quo.

One option, Kress said, would be to scrap both the House and Senate formulas and adhere more strictly to the accountability system developed in Texas, which was featured prominently in Bush's campaign.

"We're used to doing it the way we did it in Texas . . . which has caused us some heartburn with the language we've seen in the bills so far," Kress said.

In the first year of the Texas program, schools had only to show, based on test scores, that 25% of their students were academically proficient--a modest target that nine in 10 schools were able to hit.

Kress has suggested that might be a reasonable goal for the federal legislation. Identifying more schools than that would discourage educators and exhaust resources, he said.

As it stands, the House and Senate bills would require unremitting progress by schools every year so that eventually 100% of students are proficient in math and reading.

Critics, liberals as well as conservatives, say that goal should not be shortchanged.

"What we should be doing is saying what we want in terms of performance goals and then let the chips fall where they may," said Andrew Rotherham, a former Clinton administration advisor who works for a coalition of centrist Democrats.

The heart of the issue is how to define, in technical terms, how bad is bad.

In Washington-speak, success is called "adequate yearly progress." But how much progress must a school make each year toward the long-term goal of having all students proficient in math and reading?

Under current law, states are required to define "adequate" for schools receiving federal aid to help disadvantaged students, but the results have been all over the map.

For example, for the 1998-99 school year, South Dakota contended that none of its schools receiving such funds were low-achieving. Michigan, meanwhile, reported that 76% of such schools had failed to make sufficient progress. In California, the figure was 34%.

By comparison, the formulas Congress is considering are more demanding and would apply to all schools. Even high-performing schools would be subject to sanctions if they faltered even briefly.

The Senate proposal demands that every student be proficient--with the precise definition left up to the state--in reading and math within 10 years. The House would give districts 12 years.

Punishing schools "will simply force states to dumb down the definition of what is proficient," said Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Roy Romer. "Let's hope we can get really, really good and get to 70%, but we're never going to get 100%."

Romer said the 725,000-student Los Angeles district would be severely punished by the bills, as written. The district doesn't have enough room to allow students at low-performing schools to transfer elsewhere. Moreover, it could not afford to pay for them to be bused.

"You have to be willing to face reality," he said.

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