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Educators slam No Child Left Behind Act

A chief concern of Virginia educators is that The No Child Left Behind Act discourages schools from helping the worst students. At least in theory, it encourages schools to ignore them.

By Hugh Lessig

RICHMOND -- As Congress prepares to reauthorize President Bush's controversial system for grading the public schools, a panel of educators on Wednesday offered a litany of issues.

Chief among them: The No Child Left Behind Act discourages schools from helping the worst students. At least in theory, it encourages schools to ignore them.

That is a big concern of Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Newport News, who convened the meeting in Richmond and invited educators from the Peninsula to join him.

A member of the House Committee on Education and Labor, Scott said he wanted to hear from school superintendents, teachers and others about the wide-ranging effects of the 5-year-old law before the reauthorization vote, likely to take place later this year.

"The idea is to have a more accurate assessment," he said afterward. "The kind of static 'Are the children at grade level or not?' is not a meaningful measure of how good the school is."

Because the unflinching system concentrates on test scores at a certain fixed point, it is not flexible enough, he said.

"If 70 is passing and you have someone testing at 20, to get them to 70 would be a huge allocation of resources," he said. "It is likely you'll move them from 20 to 50 and get zero credit for it."

That means a school with meager resources might concentrate its efforts on students in the 50 percent to 80 percent testing range, because that group has a better chance to hit the passing threshold.

"If you get someone from 20 to 50, you ought to get some credit for it," Scott said.

Ashby Kilgore, the new superintendent of Newport News schools, said this is a legitimate concern, although in practice, schools do not ignore the lowest-performing students.

"In reality, we really do work with every student," she said. "But when you decide who needs the extra push in the end, there is a theoretical disincentive. Although, when I'm in a room with my 25 kids, I don't think it's that cynical."

The act requires Virginia and other states to give public school students in grades three to eight as well as 11th-graders annual tests in reading, math and science.

Schools must meet annual goals in those subjects, based on how many students pass the tests. If they don't meet the goals, schools risk a variety of sanctions.

Schools also must report results for all students and for specific groups, including minority, low-income and special-education students, as well as those learning English for the first time.

Other concerns from Wednesday's meeting:

The government should be more flexible in helping schools by targeting aid to specific groups of students who are having trouble. Chesterfield County Superintendent Marcus Newsome, the former Newport News school chief, said this was one of the law's biggest problems.

It should measure progress through means other than standardized tests, such as real-time classroom tests.

Make allowances for states such as Virginia that already have implemented their own systems - in this case, the Standards of Learning.

This last point has raised the ire of state lawmakers, who say Virginia's SOLs are a better approach than the one-size-fits-all federal law.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed a law directing the state to sue the federal government if Virginia withdraws its public schools from the No Child Left Behind Act and federal money is withheld.

Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, said another problem is that the federal government has appropriated too little money for No Child Left Behind.

"It's almost like pharaoh asking us for more bricks without giving us the straw," she said.

— Hugh Lessig
Daily Press


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