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The Nation

Paige Extends Some Flexibility on School Act

March 30, 2004|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Announcing the latest in a string of revisions to President Bush's signature education reform program, Education Secretary Rod Paige on Monday gave public schools some flexibility in meeting a requirement that 95% of their students must take math and English achievement tests for a school to be considered "successful."

But this change and other minor tweaks Paige has made to the law over the last few months are not addressing the broad objections to the No Child Left Behind Act that threaten to turn it into a political liability for the president, critics say.

"We see the recent flexibility as improvements, but they're really not getting at the heart of some of the problems of No Child Left Behind," said Jordan Cross, government relations manager at the Council of Chief State School Officers, a Washington-based organization of state public education leaders.

California schools chief Jack O'Connell and education officials in 13 other states want to dump the federal testing system for their own. State legislatures across the country are considering measures to opt out of the program, which they say is underfunded by Washington. Conservatives assail the program as inappropriate federal meddling in local affairs.

But Bush has not flinched from his support of No Child Left Behind, which he said was designed to combat the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

The administration is clearly trying to burnish the program's image. On Monday, Laura Bush met with reporters at a convention of school board members in Orlando, Fla., to praise No Child Left Behind. Paige made his announcement at that conference.

The first lady said that, because of the policy, parents could better track their children's academic performance and teachers could focus more attention on students who most need help.

The changes Paige has made to the policy, she said, show that it is not a "one-size-fits-all" plan.

"I'm very proud of the No Child Left Behind Act," she told reporters. "We are really starting to see some great results."

Under the revisions announced Monday, schools would be able to average a 95% participation rate over two to three years, instead of requiring that figure every year. In addition, students who missed tests because of medical emergencies would not be included in determining the 95% figure. Neither change requires approval by Congress.

The revisions came in response to complaints that schools were listed as "failing to meet adequate yearly progress" because students were absent on test day. If schools do not meet the 95% participation standard for two years, sanctions kick in. Initially, schools may have to provide tutors or pay to transport students to better schools. In later years, if no improvement is made, sanctions could include restructuring the school, replacing its staff or hiring a private company to run it.

To avoid this, schools need to show not only that 95% of their students took the tests, but also that 95% of each subgroup -- such as students with limited English proficiency or learning disabilities or those from an ethnic minority -- took them.

In California, 46% of roughly 9,000 schools did not make "adequate yearly progress" last year. More than 1,700 were in that category because they did not achieve the 95% testing threshold. High schools had the most trouble; more than two-thirds, or 1,307 campuses, did not test enough students to meet expectations of annual progress.

Van Nuys High School, for example, managed to test 95% of its students in English/language arts but only 93% in math. The tests are on different days.

Assistant Principal Roberta Mailman said that some students did not show up on test days, knowing that the exams did not affect their grades or prospects for college admissions.

"It's really hard for high schools to get 95%," said Mailman, who oversees testing at the year-round campus in the San Fernando Valley. "High school students are a different breed.... They make more decisions concerning their attendance than students in a middle school or elementary school."

O'Connell said the relaxed rule would likely "have minimal immediate impact" in California.

In the second year of the law, 28% of the nation's schools did not meet the adequate yearly progress set by their states, and 6% failed to meet that standard for the second or third year, meaning they were listed as "in need of improvement," according to the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy.

Although urban districts were twice as likely to be identified as "in need of improvement," complaints about the law have been loudest from rural and suburban areas, where Bush gets much of his political support.

Michael D. Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based coalition of the country's 61 biggest school systems, said large urban districts have always supported No Child Left Behind and still do.

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