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State Education Officials Seek More Flexibility in No Child Left Behind Act

March 25, 2004|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

California schools chief Jack O'Connell and education leaders from 13 other states urged the Bush administration Wednesday to help revise the No Child Left Behind law, saying the measure penalizes schools that improve on state tests but fail to meet rigid federal targets.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Education, California's superintendent of public instruction and the other state officials sought support for legislation to provide flexibility in applying the 2-year-old law to schools.

Without such help, they said, the "vast majority" of schools would fail to meet federal expectations within a few years, leaving them vulnerable to sanctions as severe as state takeovers.

The state leaders said they wanted to have the option of using their own test score systems -- which gives schools more credit for incremental gains -- as an alternative for gauging improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The federal law has more fixed standards and goals. Schools must show annual increases in the percentages of students who are proficient in English/language arts and math until all students achieve proficiency by the 2013-14 school year.

Campuses that receive federal funds for serving low-income children can face penalties, including the removal of principals, if they repeatedly fail to meet their annual federal test goals. The schools also must use federal funds to pay for private tutoring or to bus students to better public schools.

O'Connell said that 403 California campuses -- out of about 8,000 -- more than doubled their state "growth" score targets the last two years but failed to meet the federal bar during that time.

"All of us agree with the goal of raising standards [and] having high expectations to increase the academic achievement of our students. Schools should be held accountable for results," O'Connell told reporters Wednesday in a conference call from Washington.

"We are not weakening No Child Left Behind. This is about flexibility and additional local control, and meeting the unique needs of each state."

U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige said he would not help the states in their efforts to revise the law, fearing such a move would undermine its intent.

"Regrettably, there are some who would prefer to weaken accountability standards, regardless of the children who will be left behind as a result," he said in a statement. "Let me be very clear. Changing the law to satisfy the concerns of the system at the expense of children learning is misguided and wrong."

But federal officials have revised No Child Left Behind regulations in other areas three times since December in response to concerns raised by states and members of Congress.

The regulatory changes gave schools, among other things, flexibility in how they measure progress for students who are still learning English. And they made it easier for rural teachers and science teachers to be considered "highly qualified." O'Connell and the others asked for additional changes that need congressional approval.

Paige's spokeswoman, Susan Aspey, said the previous changes, supported by the secretary, did not weaken the law's standards. But she said the states' request on Wednesday appeared to do just that, possibly delaying the goal of all students becoming proficient in reading and math.

Joining O'Connell in signing Wednesday's letter to Paige were the schools chiefs from Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington.

Tom Horne, Arizona's public schools chief, said that 13% of Arizona's 1,800 schools were deemed "under-performing" last year based on state tests, and that 23% failed to meet federal proficiency requirements.

"The law is based on a very good premise, which is that schools should be accountable," Horne said. "But I think it needs to be rewritten to give states flexibility."

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