NCLB: Mammoth Mishmash
President Bush's mammoth education reform law hit schoolhouse steps with a thud this fall, ushering in school choice nationwide and baffling a public accustomed to using test scores to judge who has the best schools.
But because every state individually decides what it takes to pass, academic success measured by Bush's No Child Left Behind Act is wildly different throughout the country.
In Florida, for example, education officials said "adequate yearly progress" last year meant 31 percent of students should be able to read on grade level.
Those same officials begrudgingly announced last month that an eye-popping 88 percent of schools failed to meet that standard.
On the West Coast, California said making progress meant 14 percent of elementary school students and 11 percent of high school students should be able to read on grade level. Forty-five percent of California's schools failed to meet the standards.
There is no national standard defining grade level.
States that set higher standards, and have more schools not meeting federal muster, are likely to see sanctions faster than states with lower standards.
Schools that fail to meet the federal guidelines two years in a row must allow students to choose to go to other, better-rated public schools at the school district's expense for transportation.
Districts also must provide extra tutoring at no cost to parents.
In Florida, 48 schools, including six in Palm Beach County, had to offer school choice this year.
It's the first time administrators are feeling the pinch of the federal law -- a cornerstone of Bush's 2000 election campaign, which promised to have all students performing on grade level by year 2014.
If schools continue to fail under increasingly tougher success measures, federal money can eventually be withheld, and schools could come under federal control.
But there's so much confusion about the law, or flat-out inability to comply with it, that some states are only turning in test scores for schools with many poor students -- schools that receive federal Title 1 dollars.
Law's fairness a concern
Others, whose pre-No Child plans clash with the federal law, are reporting all their scores, but only under "strong protest," as in the case of Virginia, which didn't want to release scores of students who had been in the country less than one year.
And in Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush announced schools were doing better than ever on his "A-Plus" education plan just a month and a half before his brother's federal plan said 88 percent of schools were not meeting standards.
That's because the governor's plan measures year-to-year progress of student achievement, while the president's plan requires a school to have a specific percentage of students achieving on grade level.
Florida education officials are now reviewing the results of No Child Left Behind, believing a "glitch" in a computer program might have skewed the number of schools not making adequate yearly progress.
Revised results are expected to be released this week.
"A high level of frustration is common everywhere," said Tonya Moon, an assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia who works with states trying to comply with the act. "I think what you have is the issue of policymakers writing policy and we're seeing the trickle-down effect of the policy not fitting reality."
Every state has turned in plans to comply with the 1,200-page law.
Those plans had to be approved by the federal Department of Education, but were not evaluated on whether a state's standards were too high or too low.
Proponents say the law has at least forced all states to develop a blueprint for academic success that will show how all groups of students are doing -- black, white, Hispanic, disabled, poor and non-English speaking.
But educators are asking if the law is treating every state fairly.
Gov. Bush has promised not to water down Florida's rules, but politicians wonder if pressure to look better and frustration over state vs. federal control of education will have repercussions at the polls in 2004, especially in one of President Bush's biggest swing state's -- Florida.
"Florida intentionally set the bar high and it seems that Florida is going to be punished for setting the bar high," said David Mosrie, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.
Compliance no easy task
States have scrambled to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act since it became law in January 2002.
The comprehensive mandate requires testing students in third through eighth grades for progress in reading and math, tutoring for students in failing schools, eliminating disparities in achievement between whites and minorities by 2014 and putting "highly qualified" teachers in all schools by the 2005-2006 school year.
In July, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige heralded the approval of plans for all 50 states to comply with the law.
It hasn't come easily.
Ohio was threatened with the loss of $403 million of federal money for not creating a standardized testing program for all students. But a new law that streamlines schools' testing practices gave the state a financial reprieve.
Georgia and Minnesota both had Title I money denied when they were judged to be out of compliance for either not using new test scores or failing to test all students.
Georgia lost $783,327 and Minnesota was denied $112,964.
Other states wrote their plans so as not to have as many schools on the federal hit list.
Texas, for example, only counts the scores of subgroups of students, such as black or Hispanic, if there are 50 students or more in the category.
California also uses 50 as a subgroup number, but only if that equals 15 percent of a school's total population. If it doesn't, the subgroup must have 100 students.
Florida counts subgroups of students if they have 30 students or more, making it more likely that the scores of minorities and poor students will be counted.
Education experts say the federal law was written loosely because President Bush knew that requiring a standardized program for states put him on shaky ground with Republicans who traditionally favor states' rights.
"It's all mixed up in the politics, "said David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia who studies the economics of public education policy.
Mosrie, of the superintendents association, said he'd like to use the flexibility the act gives states to change Florida's adequate yearly progress measure.
He wants it to more closely match the governor's A-Plus plan, which judges schools largely on academic growth -- one of the reasons 48 percent of Florida's schools got A grades this year, while 88 percent of the state's schools failed on No Child Left Behind.
But Gov. Bush has refused to lower standards so that more schools will pass.
Last year, meeting standards in Florida required 31 percent of students to read on grade level and 38 percent to do math on grade level.
"We didn't punt on our standards," Bush said when the federal results were released. "We could have looked good."
Some say law is working
National education officials have been forced to defend No Child Left Behind this year as criticism mounts following the initial effects of the law.
Gene Hickok, the undersecretary of the federal Department of Education, said he's heard all the arguments against the law, including how states with higher standards could see money redirected to tutoring or transportation to other schools.
"The fact is that this isn't the system's money, this isn't the district's money or the building's money," Hickok said. "To me, the system only exists to provide education to kids, and if it's not doing that, then other things have to happen, and if that's the case, so be it."
Besides spending money on tutoring, the states will have to spend between $1.9 billion and $5.3 billion of their own money to comply with the testing requirements of the law, according to one estimate from the federal General Accounting Office.
That comes at a time when many states are facing a deficit and school districts are dealing with budget shortfalls of millions of dollars.
Still, Hickok said the law is working.
"The actual culture of American public education is changing for the better," he said.
"It's whatever argument is convenient," said Tony Welch, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, who noted that education ranks high as an important issue with Florida voters.
"It's going to be hard for the president to waltz into Florida and pat himself on the back while the people are aware of a different reality."
U.S. education law nets mishmash of results
Palm Beach Post
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES