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Let's Try 'No State Left Behind'

February 24, 2005

Why can't California get the same deal as Utah regarding the No Child Left Behind Act? As the new U.S. secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings is showing welcome flexibility -- but troubling inconsistency -- when it comes to enforcing the arcane and sometimes nonsensical regulations covering schools.

Utah wants permission to use its own accountability system rather than the federal one, and its House of Representatives recently passed a bill giving state education rules priority. Spellings has said she's willing to visit Utah and listen, and that's promising talk. Utah does a superior job of tracking achievement, by measuring year-to-year improvement of each student. That's the gold standard for leaving no child behind, not the federal law's convoluted statistical juggling that requires a certain number of students from all sorts of tiny demographic subgroups to meet an imaginary bar called "proficiency."

California gets no such friendly ear when it comes to measuring achievement among the state's school districts. Spellings' office insists that the state add about 300 school districts to the "failing" list because they avoided censure only via a California escape clause: Any district that can improve scores among low-income students by a certain amount is safe, no matter how its other students fared. Individual schools have no such flexibility; this is extended to districts only.

State officials are concerned about putting outstanding school systems in danger of being dismantled -- which can happen under the federal law after a few failing years -- simply because a handful of students in a couple of schools don't meet their testing goals.

This has been a pressing issue, especially among special-education students who, in one of the law's more inane provisions, must make the same progress toward proficiency as everyone else. In addition, close to half of the "failing" California schools fell short not because their students tested badly but because not enough students in every demographic subgroup took the test.

Though the state is right to seek a way around these strictures, its escape clause could serve a less-innocent purpose. A school district could fail most of its students miserably but avoid trouble by getting one group, the low-income students, to improve. Federal officials are right to find this unacceptable.

In considering California's situation, Spellings should keep in mind that this state has set high testing standards, unlike many others. It's not trying to get out of working for achievement by all students, and in fact has a better accountability system than the federal law provides. The state shouldn't be allowed to game the law, but it does need someone to listen to what the problem is here. Spellings can be that person, if she chooses.

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