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NCLB Outrages

NCLB Backlash Has Begun
Minnesota Senator Mark Dayton: "[Testing] has become the cheap version" of education reform. It's cheaper to measure failure than to fund success."
But don't miss the dumb things other Minnesotans have to say.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The backlash has begun.

Only a year after President Bush signed a law requiring states to give yearly tests in reading and math for all students in grades 3-8, Washington is hearing cries for relief.

In Montana, Republican Gov. Judy Martz told Congress that the state can't meet the requirements without some flexibility.

In Alaska, the State Board of Education passed a resolution asking for help after discovering "compliance difficulties." And in Nebraska, a showdown is brewing, with officials warning that the plan will overload public schools.

On Capitol Hill, four U.S. senators -- including Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton of Minnesota -- are promoting a bill that would allow states and school districts to get waivers from the requirements.

In order to get the waivers, they'd have to demonstrate academic progress on their own. It's called the Student Flexibility Act of 2003.

"I call it sanity in the midst of testing frenzy," said Dayton, adding that testing has become "the cheap version" of education reform. "It's cheaper to measure failure than to fund success."

The Republican-controlled Congress usually regards school flexibility as a good thing. But Congress is unlikely to budge on the new tests, which are scheduled to be fully in place by 2005.

"I fundamentally believe that parents have a right to know whether their kids are learning," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who opposes efforts to let states opt out. "We have, for too long, let kids go through a system without regard to whether they're learning."

The education law, called No Child Left Behind, aims to use tests to put a spotlight on student performance. The new tests are the heart of Bush's education platform and are designed to put pressure on schools to improve.

The Bush administration is opposing the bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and cosponsored by Dayton and Vermont's senators: Democrat Pat Leahy and Jim Jeffords, an independent. Education Secretary Rod Paige opposed a similar bill last year and has not changed his position, his spokeswoman said.

"He would not be inclined to support any legislation that in any way would water down the strong accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind law," said Susan Aspey, deputy press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education.

Minnesota is not among the states seeking relief.

Cheri Pierson Yecke, who worked for the Bush administration before taking over as Minnesota's education commissioner in February, said the state has no interest in applying for a waiver.

"We're committed to implementation of No Child Left Behind," she said.

Yecke said the state is awaiting final federal approval of its plan for compliance with the law. It includes a formula for measuring adequate academic progress.

"No Child Left Behind is going to shine the light of truth on what is happening in schools in terms of the achievement of children who in the past have regularly been left behind," Yecke said. "If the taxpayers are going to invest money in education, they deserve to know what they're getting in return for that investment."

Toward that end, Yecke said, the federal data-reporting requirements will ensure that the public knows what's happening in every school, with all subgroups of students. "You can't solve a problem unless you first identify it," she said.

The bill allowing waivers was first introduced last year and was one of the last pieces of education legislation cosponsored by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. He objected primarily to what he regarded as the overuse of standardized tests and the costs of the federal mandate.

Feingold said the response to the new law in Wisconsin has been "almost universally negative," adding that the tests will do little but place extra pressure on students, teachers and schools.

"I agree that some tests are needed to ensure that our children are keeping pace," Feingold said. "But taking time to test students has to take a back seat to taking the time to teach students in the first place. . . . I have heard from many education professionals in my state that this new testing requirement is a waste of money and a waste of time."

Reflecting the growing disenchantment with the new law, the flexibility bill has won the backing of the National PTA and groups representing school administrators, principals and social workers, according to Feingold. It has been referred to the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for consideration.

Under the bill, states or school districts could qualify for a waiver if they can demonstrate that they've closed the achievement gap among groups of students or that they've exceeded their progress goals for two or more consecutive years. Waivers would be good for three years and could be renewed.

"I'm for testing on a reasonable basis," Dayton said. But he said the bill recognizes "the excess in piling tests upon tests upon tests," adding that school districts face "the expense and the absurdity" of complying with a new mandate from Washington.

"Minnesota's already testing in grades 3, 5 and 8, and the federal government wants to test grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8," Dayton said. "And what's still out in the future is the cost of administering all of this -- and I think that's when the real backlash is going to occur."

— Rob Hotakainen
School tests stir backlash
Star Tribune
May 19, 2003


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