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Education officials discuss fairness of No Child Left Behind

These education chiefs want change but they don't want to rock the boat.

SANTA FE — Education Secretary Veronica Garcia said federal education officials expressed to her a willingness to show some flexibility on No Child Left Behind regulations, but only under certain conditions.

Garcia and top education officials from other states met with new federal Education Secretary Margaret Spellings this week as part of the Council of Chief State School Officers meeting in Washington D.C.

Garcia said she came away from the meeting with Spellings, who was named to replace Rod Paige as education secretary during President Bush’s second term, encouraged that the new education chief had listened to their concerns.

“I did gather that Margaret Spellings was open to listening to the states,” Garcia said, adding that wasn’t always the case when Paige headed the department.

Garcia said Spellings showed a willingness to show some flexibility on No Child Left Behind, a sweeping education reform instituted by the Bush administration that puts a heavy emphasis on standardized testing and has serious financial consequences for schools that don’t meet standards

Spellings stressed, however, that before any changes could be made, schools had to demonstrate that they were closing the achievement gap, had an accountability system in place, had options for parents of students in under-performing schools and were ensuring teacher quality, Garcia said.

Once those conditions were met, Garcia said, Spellings indicated a willingness to add flexibility in three specific areas:

• Special Education. Under the current system, each school is broken down into subgroups — most based on factors such as ethnicity or income level. If any one subgroup fails to show improvement (known as Adequate Yearly Progress), the entire school is ranked as failing to meet standards.

Special education students make up one subgroup. Garcia said studies show that children with cognitive disabilities are often unable to make the same progress as other students, despite the best efforts of the school district.
She said the federal government has offered to allow schools to increase the percentage of students classified as special education, and to come up with ways to modify the testing.

“I certainly concur that we need to review the special education, because it is so limited as to who is allowed exceptions,” said Farmington School District Superintendent Janel Ryan. “Expecting those kids to take the same test as the kids in the regular classes seems unfair.”
“It provides some flexibility, but it doesn’t let us off the hook,” said Garcia, adding that schools would still have to work to show improvement in with their special education students.

• Growth Model. Under the current model, schools must show improvement each year, even though they are testing a new batch of kids. For example, if they test a third-grade class one year, the next year’s third-grade class must show improvement.

Garcia said that a more effective way of evaluating progress would be to test the same students.

Gadsden Superintendent Ron Haugen agreed.
“Comparing apples to apples, that’s critical,” Haugen said. “You want to follow the growth of the students and not necessarily look at third-graders every year.”

• Limited English Proficiency. Under the current system, all students must be tested in English within three years of entering a school district. Garcia said studies show it takes seven years for a student to become proficient in a new language.

She said that to get an accurate measure of a student’s progress they need to be tested in a language they are familiar with.

“We’re trying to prepare students to compete in a global economy,” Garcia said. “It seems to me that we would want students to graduate who are competent in two languages.”

Haugen noted that young students have to become fluent in their primary language first.
Garcia said she hoped to be named to a work group to take a closer look at that requirement.
She said they have also asked for flexibility in teacher certification requirements. Those regulations may make sense for large school districts, but are impractical in tiny, rural districts, she said.

“The whole district might have 10 teachers for middle school and high school. To try to find people who are certified in math and science is very difficult,” she said. “I don’t think that part was very well thought out.”

Garcia noted that the No Child Left Behind Act comes up for reauthorization in 2007, and predicted there would be changes made to the law.

“The overall fact that the new secretary of education is willing to look at things that are not fair or are not working is a benefit to all of us,” Ryan said.

Walter Rubel can be reached at wrubel@lcsun-news.com.

— Walter Rubel
The Daily Times


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