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NCLB Outrages

New Exceptions in Testing Law for Some Ill or Injured Students

WASHINGTON, March 29 In what is expected to be the last in a string of pre-election changes to the No Child Left Behind law, federal officials announced Monday that schools could exempt students with grave injuries or medical conditions from the standardized exams used to rank schools.

Under the bipartisan measure signed into law by President Bush in January 2002, schools must test students in reading and math annually in grades three to eight and once in high school, breaking down results by sex, poverty, race, ethnicity and disability. Before Monday's change, if less than 95 percent of students in any subgroup showed up for the exams, the school was automatically deemed "in need of improvement."

In a related change, schools will also be permitted to average the share of students who take the exams over three years, rather than rely on a single year, to achieve the 95 percent minimum, officials said.

"Full participation in these assessments remains at the heart of No Child Left Behind," said Rod Paige, the education secretary. "It is the only way we can find the students who need help most, and get help to them so they can get back on the right track."

The change to No Child Left Behind is the fourth since December. Earlier changes eased the testing rules on students who were still learning English and disabled students. In recent months, more than a dozen state legislatures, some dominated by Republicans, have passed measures criticizing the law, which greatly expanded the federal role in monitoring schools.

Doug Mesecar, the deputy chief of staff for policy at the Department of Education, said that in some states only 1 percent or 2 percent of schools fell short of the federal standards solely because of low participation rates, while in other states the figure was "in the high teens." Mr. Mesecar said the department did not know just how many schools fell short because a handful of students were absent on exam day.

In Minnesota, Dr. Paige said, "one superintendent showed me a case where one student was missing from school that day and caused that school to be deemed in need of improvement."

Michael Hill, deputy executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, called the federal rules on participation "a major issue" for his members. "The 95 percent participation may have been the single greatest cause of schools slipping into the category of `needs improvement,' " Mr. Hill said.

Students who have a medical emergencies for example, a car crash injury that prevent them from appearing at school during the test period can be exempted under the changed rule.

The relaxed rules appear to strike a balance between those who expected more drastic steps to ease the 95 percent rule and others who feared that letting schools off the hook would weaken the law's power to help the lowest-achieving students.

"The changes seemed sensible," said Ross Weiner, a policy director at the Education Trust, a nonprofit Washington organization that helped write the law. "To my reading, it looked like they were accounting for extenuating circumstances, but not watering down the law."

Bella Rosenberg, adviser to Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, "It's an improvement. It's minimal."

— Diana Jean Schemo
New York Times


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