Vermont educators wary of 'No Child' testing flexibility
Vermonters involved with education greeted a recent initiative to ease some of the restrictions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act with a mixture of hope and skepticism.
On April 7, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced what she called a more common-sense approach to applying the federal law for states like Vermont that comply with its major requirements.
"States that show results and follow the principles of No Child Left Behind will be eligible for new tools to help them meet the law's goals," Spellings said. "In other words, it is the results that truly matter, not the bureaucratic way that you get there. That's just common sense, sometimes lost in the halls of the government."
Spellings emphasized that the NCLB requirements for testing student achievement annually, reporting the results — including how poor and minority students, as well as students in special education, perform — and highly qualified teachers, are not up for negotiation.
She called those requirements the "bright lines" of the law, but said states that can show they are narrowing the "achievement gap" could expect to see even more flexibility of the federal education law.
Vermont Education Commissioner Richard Cate says he is guardedly optimistic at the recent announcement.
"Any flexibility for the state is a benefit and I thank the secretary for her efforts," Cate said in an interview. "I'm looking forward to having a lot more conversations with her and her staff about how this will actually play out."
He added, "There is flexibility built into the law in terms of what they can do and also some flexibility for the states. The law is not as absolute and arbitrary as some people think."
But Vermont's congressional delegation noted that Spellings' announcement, though long on promise, was short on details.
"While Secretary Spellings is saying all the right things, we have yet to see any details about how this new flexibility will be achieved," said Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt. "I hope the administration will provide these details soon, for the sake of our schools and their students."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., agreed that Spellings was vague and said administrative steps did not solve what he called the fundamental problems in NCLB.
"I appreciate Secretary Spellings' acknowledging what many of us have been pointing out for some time — that a rigid, one-size-fits-all federal approach to education constrains the abilities of states like Vermont," he said. "Her offer of some greater flexibility is a constructive gesture, and I hope that she will follow through on it.
Leahy added, "But an offer of administrative flexibility does not change NCLB's misguided focus on standardized testing and does nothing to ensure that schools receive the resources they need to truly improve."
Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., went further, calling the federal act unwise and an unfunded financial burden.
"While increasing flexibility to states is a step forward, this law needs far more profound changes," he said.
At least one change specified in Spellings' announcement was greeted warmly by some Vermont educators.
Ellie McGarry, director of special education for Rutland City schools and a representative to the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, said a provision that expands the number of special education students who can be given alternative tests was very welcome.
Now some of the state's more challenged special education students can be given tests that are more appropriate to their abilities, she said, instead of the standard tests that would likely frustrate them.
For example, a severely disabled 15-year-old might be given a test based on the standards for fourth grade if that were a more appropriate way to challenge and measure the student's abilities, McGarry said.
"We were able to do that before NCLB, but since then it's been all up in the air," she said. "It gives us a place to assess them and determine where they're at. It's a good thing, I think, for the students. It will really help them with what they're doing."
However, the new federal regulations only allow those "out-of-level" assessments for 2 percent of the state's students — in addition to 1 percent of students who can already be exempted from standardized tests altogether. McGarry said she doesn't know if that will be enough.
"Statewide, that's a pretty large number of students, but I don't know," she said, adding that even 2 percent is better than zero.
"But we were very happy to get this word," she said. "We were trying to figure out what to do with this population. … This is good news. It gives us more flexibility."
David Ford, co-superintendent of the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, said he hopes loosening that restriction bodes well for other aspects of education regulated by NCLB.
"It may be that Washington is starting to hear from the education world that this rather boilerplate approach has some problems with fairness," he said.
But William Mathis, superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union and an outspoken critic of the law, was unimpressed.
"To change from 1 percent to 3 percent is basically trivial," he said. "It's still a kind of impossible goal, no matter how you look at it."
Mathis said Spellings' changes seem to be rewarding schools that are already doing well and further punishing schools that are struggling.
"For those schools that are making adequate yearly progress, it is a good thing; they get somewhat more flexibility," he said. "But if you're not making gains, you have to stick with the rigid rules."
He added, "Poor (schools) are really flying in steerage now … and the others are flying first class. … It's the opposite effect of what was intended. What was intended was equity and good opportunities for all students."
Contact Brendan McKenna at firstname.lastname@example.org.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES