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Some states left behind

November 28, 2005

SINCE SHE TOOK OFFICE IN January, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has worked hard to soften the awkward angles of the No Child Left Behind Act, which was passed in 2001. Her latest effort promises to bring some sanity to a law so unworkable that it was causing even some solidly Republican states to rebel against the Bush administration.

The change involves the way schools' success is measured. Until now, each school has had to bring a certain number of its students to a performance level defined as "proficient." A certain number of students in all sorts of categories have to reach that level, including, for instance, students with learning disabilities. It's a bar that makes little sense for students who started with the lowest scores. Individual students, and even a group, may make tremendous improvement, but if a given number don't become "proficient," the school is counted as a failure.

That simply encourages teachers not to give their attention to the children who need it most: those struggling on the bottom rungs. Instead, many teachers have admitted to focusing on the children who had previously tested just below proficient, because they had the best chance of making that last little gain needed to make the school look good.

Largely at California's insistence, Spellings has agreed that up to 10 states will get to use a different yardstick, by measuring individual student improvement year to year. The state, which already uses a similar way of measuring school success, is expected to apply for the pilot program.

Spellings rightly demands that schools still must ensure that they are closing the achievement gap. In other words, poor and minority students, who generally score toward the bottom, must not only improve each year, they must improve more than students at the high end. California will have to tweak its system to meet that standard -- and even so, many of its schools will fail. But at least parents will get a truer picture of where the problem lies, and schools will get credit for a job well done.

The new rules, though admirable, cannot overcome the limitations of a law that was well-intentioned but ill-conceived, clumsily crafted and drastically underfunded. The major contribution of No Child Left Behind is that it has revealed how badly impoverished students are doing -- and how little many schools were doing about it.

That's no small achievement. But the law does not address the uneven challenges schools face or give them a framework for improvement. It needs a rewrite, not touches of administrative relief.

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