"No Child" Law Called Bad Fit for Vermont
SOUTH BURLINGTON - Schools need flexibility to tailor their programs to the needs of their students and communities rather than to a standardized test. At least that was the message sent Saturday by teachers, administrators and lawmakers who gathered here to discuss modifying the federal law that has overhauled the way schools and students are evaluated.
"We want our kids to be well-rounded people and whole persons, and one test doesn't measure that,'' said Rutland School Superintendent Mary Moran.
She said that in her district, where a substantial portion of the students are from families who live at or below the poverty line, educators are already pushed to the limit because they must become involved in solving social problems as well as trying to improve student academic performance. Moran said they already have tests and other measures of achievement that are more effective at gauging student progress than those mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act.
The act requires schools to test at certain grade levels and imposes sanctions on districts if students are not performing at a specified level. Supporters have argued it will increase schools' accountability and raise the achievement level of all students regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds.
But many educators in Vermont say the law, which Congress passed in 2002, does not allow states with above-average test scores enough leeway. They also contend it imposes additional requirements without allocating enough money to help school districts pay for the tests and personnel needed to comply.
"No Child Left Behind will cost states about 10 times as much as they receive from the federal government. The rules are so prescriptive that, in time, virtually all public schools and districts in the states will be declared as failing, regardless of their achievement pattern,'' said Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent William J. Mathis.
He estimated that the measure mandates about $130 billion in new costs per year and Congress only allocates about $11 billion.
Others at the conference had an even more graphic description of the law's impact.
"It's a weapon of mass destruction aimed at the well-being of our nation's public schools and the public's confidence in our public schools,'' said Angelo Dorta, president of Vermont-NEA, the state's largest teachers union. The union sponsored the meeting and is one of the biggest opponents of the law.
Students are tested in grades two, four, eight and 10 and receive scores based on their performance in seven areas. Each state chooses its own tests and its own standards of assessment. Schools and students are then matched against those standards, which rise each year.
The purpose of the federal law is to get all students to meet state standards by 2014-2015. Schools that fail to make "adequate yearly progress" toward that goal are first warned - privately in the first year and publicly if they remain behind for a second year.
Schools that don't make enough progress for a third year must seek help from the state and give parents the option to send their children to another school.
Schools that fail for a fourth year can be required to turn over some of their funding directly to parents, allowing families to pay for supplemental services such as tutors or transportation to other schools.
A school that fails for a fifth year may have to relinquish substantial local control, possibly including dismissal of teachers and administrators and turning education over to a private entity chosen by the state.
Several speakers at the conference said the law indicated that key education policy-makers in Washington are out of touch with what is happening in public schools.
"We need to send special education teachers to Washington to provide a comprehensive evaluation of our leaders,'' said Marcy Casey, a special education elementary school teacher in Rutland.
Dorta quipped that President George Bush and members of Congress are "not making adequate yearly progress in support of public education."
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told the gathering that the measure's emphasis on testing "may be unwittingly extinguishing the love of learning that might otherwise be sparked by the imagination of a teacher, the creativity of an artist, or the mysteries of a comic book.''
But he said the measure's bigger problem is that it fails to take into account the state's uniqueness. All three members of Vermont's congressional delegation opposed its passage.
"States like Vermont, with many rural and small schools, face unique problems in meeting the strict accountability rules. Some states have decided that they would rather avoid being labeled failing by 'dumbing down' their standards. That's the wrong approach. Vermont will not do that, but the fact that others will shows how impractical this law is,'' he said.
Leahy, who has co-sponsored a measure that would give states flexibility on some of the act's testing requirements, said he doubts any changes will pass before November, because the Bush administration does not want to face the voters after admitting that there is anything wrong with the program.
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Claude R. Marx
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