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NCLB Outrages

Arizona Easing Fed's Rules for School Standards

Everything this reporter writes is filtered through a standardista mind-set. Note the similar Ed Trust whining about the small changes in NCLB.

As complaints about Child Left Behind Act grow, the Bush administration's tough, 2-year-old education reform law is quietly being weakened in behind-the-scenes negotiations between states, including Arizona, and Washington, D.C.

Arizona schools chief Tom Horne and state superintendents across the nation are relentlessly, and successfully, negotiating with the U.S. Department of Education to cut deals that make it easier to show their schools are improving.

The result: There is no reliable way for parents to know whether their child's school is any better than two years ago, because there is no consistent measure of academic achievement.

Each state has created such a distinct measuring stick that it's impossible to say whether a child who has passed Arizona's standardized test and is achieving at grade level would have the same success in another state. Or that a school labeled successful in Arizona would be successful in another state.

Without many of the changes negotiated into Arizona's version of the federal standards, more than 700 of 1,800 schools would have failed last year. Instead, after concessions that diluted the federal formula to judge achievement, only 401 schools were put on the "failed to make adequate yearly progress" list.

Horne says the changes have produced a more "fair and reasonable" way to judge Arizona's schools.

Up to 80 percent of schools would make the federal failing list within a couple of years if changes hadn't been negotiated, he said. Left to the original rules, the expensive fixes for that many schools would have created a costly political and budget dilemma for Arizona. Horne also said it would be difficult for Arizona teachers, students and parents to believe 80 percent of Arizona schools were failing by anyone's standards.

"If you do that, you undermine the credibility of the accountability system itself," Horne said.

As state lawmakers in a dozen states, including Arizona, threatened to divorce their states from the law and give up millions of dollars of federal funding for schools, the Department of Education began to dilute some of its own standards.

Now all states are permitted to ease the way scores of some English-language learners and special-education students are counted and schools are no longer required to test 95 percent of their students each year.

As policy director for the Education Trust, a privately funded national organization that advocates for poor and minority children, Ross Wiener doesn't like the idea that states are re-creating the No Child Left Behind Act to fit their existing school systems.

Wiener said parents should be especially concerned that the test scores of English-language learners and smaller groups of poor and minority kids are not being counted in Arizona's negotiated version of the federal standards formula.

"It's allowing the education system to avoid being responsible for the teaching and learning of these students," he said.

The feds maintain that certain tenets of the reform law can't be compromised.

To determine whether a school's students made "Adequate Yearly Progress," states must show that all students in Grades 3 through high school take a math and reading test based on each state's grade-by-grade learning goals.

Then schools must increase the number of students passing the tests until all students pass the state's test by the 2014 deadline. But the law gives each state a wide berth in achieving those requirements.

The Arizona Department of Education is taking advantage of the autonomy. For example, the state test, Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, gets easier to pass every year. Arizona has also negotiated other changes:

Horne's biggest complaint with the federal formula was that a school could improve test scores overall but still fail because scores did not improve within small groups of targeted students, such as African-American, Hispanic and Native American students and students living in poverty. Arizona received permission to exclude the test scores of those groups unless at least 30 students from each of the groups took the test. Last year, that change alone excluded an estimated 680 Arizona schools.

The state doesn't count the test scores of students who are in their first three years of learning English. Horne allows schools to appeal those scores out of the federal formula.

Arizona's base line for improvement is low. In third grade, schools must get at least 44 percent of their kids to pass the AIMS reading test; in high school math, the base line is 10 percent passing.

While progress in student achievement is the goal of the No Child act, Arizona is one of just a few states that has negotiated a slower climb to the 2014 deadline. Schools need to increase the number of students passing AIMS every three years, instead of every year. Then, like a balloon payment mortgage, Arizona is promising a sudden jump in the number of students passing AIMS after the 2009-2010 school year.

Horne said he plans to negotiate an extension to the 2014 deadline for Arizona, pushing the date that all students must achieve at grade level to 2017.

Exactly how far federal regulators will go to accommodate individual state changes depends on whom you talk to from the Department of Education.

Ken Meyer, who works for intergovernmental affairs for the federal agency, visited Arizona recently as a peacemaker, quelling a rebellion brewing in the state Legislature. Lawmakers were considering a bill to ignore the federal act, daring federal officials to stop the flow of at least $300 million Arizona receives in education funding. The bill appears dead.

"There is a wall," Meyer said. "I just don't know where it is."

Paul Koehler runs the policy research group WestEd and is an adviser to Gov. Janet Napolitano. Koehler said some of the changes Horne and other state schools chiefs are pushing are cutting into the core of the federal law's intent. He is especially concerned about Horne's

— Pat Kossan
Arizona Republic


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