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The Nation

Rules Loosened for No Child Left Behind Law

In response to outcry, the education secretary offers more flexibility to states with strong checks in place and for testing disabled students.

April 08, 2005|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, in an effort to quiet a rebellion over federal education policy, announced Thursday that states with strong accountability systems already in place would be given greater flexibility in implementing the No Child Left Behind Act.

"It is results that truly matter, not the bureaucratic way you get there," Spellings said at a meeting with state education chiefs at George Washington's estate, Mount Vernon, just south of Washington. "That's just common sense, sometimes lost in the halls of government."

The law's goal is to have children meet their grade-level standards in reading and math by the 2013-2014 school year.

Since the bill was signed in 2002, some states have been complaining that the federal standards -- with no flexibility to substitute the results of state-created achievement tests -- have usurped state and local control of schools.

The legislation requires the Department of Education to withhold federal funds from schools that fail to meet the standards. More than a dozen state legislatures have passed resolutions protesting the law as a mandate that requires state action without providing compensating funds.

On Thursday, before an invited audience of business and education leaders, Spellings offered the states some relief.

There would, she said, be no change in what she called the "bright lines" of the law -- using annual standardized tests in grades three through eight; reporting test results by subgroups (minorities, English-language learners, the economically disadvantaged) to ensure that those in need get added help; taking steps to improve the quality of teachers; and providing more information to parents about the quality of schools and teachers, along with parents' alternatives if the school is not meeting standards.

But schools seeking more flexibility, or waivers, in reaching those goals would "get credit for the work they have done to reform their education system as a whole," Spellings said.

"On this new path, we're going to let research and results drive our decisions," she said, comparing the modifications to the changes parents make after the first three years of a child's life. "The law has successfully come through what parents fondly call the 'terrible twos.' "

Now, she said, she hoped to "lay a foundation for continuous improvement and success down the road."

As Exhibit A in this "new common-sense approach," she proposed increasing the number of special-education students eligible for alternative standardized testing more closely aligned with their ability levels.

Under the current provisions, schools that fail to show adequate yearly progress in test scores can be sanctioned by the federal government. Increasing the number of students who can take the alternative tests should enable schools to better meet requirements.

"States that understand this new way of doing things will be gratified," she said. "Others looking for loopholes to simply take the federal funds, ignore the intent of the law and have minimal results to show for their millions of federal dollars will ... be disappointed."

The discretion to reward some states and not others was a concern to some observers, who worried that the Education Department could become politicized.

"There's been a perception that some states have gotten better treatment than others," said Patricia Sullivan, director of the Center on Education Policy, an independent advocacy group. Though she praised the flexibility on special-education students, Sullivan noted that discretionary standards had the potential to discriminate.

"Just look at the difference in the way the Department of Education reacted to Connecticut versus Utah," she said. "Connecticut asked for a waiver, and the department said 'no.' Utah asked for a waiver, and the department said, 'Let's negotiate.' "

Connecticut is preparing to sue the Education Department over the No Child Left Behind provisions.

But many educators, including California Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, were pleased with the approach.

"Overall it's a very positive step in the right direction," said O'Connell, who has been pushing the department to consider growth models -- how far a school district has progressed -- in assessing schools. Spellings said she would convene a study group on that and other ideas.

"We have a very diverse population, and I hope that's the next area for flexibility," he said.

Spellings praised states, such as Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois, that did not support President Bush in last year's election. She also quoted Democratic supporters of the bill, such as "my friend Sen. Ted Kennedy" of Massachusetts, and thanked advocacy groups, including the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teachers union.

That olive branch will probably sit well with teachers, whose morale has been affected, education groups say, by the law's seeming challenge to their qualifications.

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