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Oregon Again Petitions for Flexibility in Federal Education Law

For the second time in as many years, Oregon education officials plan to seek changes in how the Bush administration's centerpiece education law affects the state's schools.

Oregon officials tried in 2003 to petition for more flexibility in the law, called No Child Left Behind. But they got nowhere with federal officials, who made it clear that they expected states to stick to the letter of the law.

Now, Oregon officials think the political climate has shifted enough for them to make another try at flexibility, as widespread concerns about the law emerge from across the country.

This time, Oregon wants to blend elements of No Child Left Behind with the state's pre-existing evaluation tool, the annual report cards given to schools. The goal is for the state to have a single measure of school progress.

Having two separate systems has led to some confusion. The most recent No Child Left Behind reports identified more than 300 Oregon schools in need of improvement; the latest state school report card found only 39.

Neither measure paints an accurate picture of the state's schools, said Ed Dennis, chief of staff to state schools superintendent Susan Castillo.

"I think the public doesn't believe that only 30 schools in Oregon are struggling, and they don't believe that 300 schools are failing," Dennis said. "Both of them are sort of bogus to some degree or another."

Under the state's new plan, still in the early stages, the improvement that students show on testing year to year would be factored into a school's No Child Left Behind rating. Such progress is already a factor in the state school report card.

Currently, No Child Left Behind penalizes schools if all groups of students fail to hit ever-rising math and reading goals. Under the law, in 2005, 50 percent of all students must read and do math at grade level. That increases to 100 percent by the year 2014.

The state's proposal could be controversial, because one of the central tenets of No Child Left Behind is that all students, regardless of background, should be held to the same goals.

In other words, just making progress isn't necessarily enough in the federal government's eyes, although state officials say progress should be given some weight.

"We are not talking about a separate set of standards for anyone," said Deputy School Superintendent Pat Burk. "We are expecting all kids to achieve those standards. But we are saying that growth toward that standard should be an important part of how we judge the progress of a school toward improvement."

Oregon is also searching for ways to avoid schools being told they need to improve when they've fallen behind in only one or two of the 60 targets they must reach under No Child Left Behind.

For example, many schools have been told they need to improve solely based on the testing participation of one or two special education students, even though some parents refuse to let their children be tested.

One idea is to have an "indexing formula", that balances both lower performances, and very high achievements.

"The idea of an index is that you look at multiple factors, not just one," Burk said. "The difference is in how you calculate a formula things like growth over time, improvement in attendance and graduation rates all are elements that could be factored into an overall indicator of quality, rather than just a single point out of sixty that leads to failure."

The last time Oregon ran into trouble with the U.S. Department of Education, it was for another flexibility proposal.

The state wanted to set separate growth targets for certain students including some minorities, special education students and those learning English.

State education officials contended that such students were often beginning at a disadvantage, and needed more time to catch up. But the idea provoked a firestorm of criticism and was quickly shelved.

Lolenzo Poe, the co-chair of the Portland school board, was one of those who criticized the state's previous attempt. He said the key is to stick to the law's dictum that all children be brought to grade level.

"I am not insensitive to schools wanting to show a level of improvement in overall academic growth," Poe said. "But I get a little uneasy if that then becomes the biggest push, at the expense of never bringing all those children up to academic benchmark."

The state's school report card would change as well under the state's working proposal, by including data on the performance of all groups of students whites, minorities, special education students, and English language learners.

Burk and others said not including such information allows a school to possibly cover up the fact that some groups of students are struggling, because the scores of other students are enough to earn the school a passing grade.

It's a change that's likely to be made even if the federal government rejects the No Child Left Behind changes, Burk said.

Darla Marburger, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary for education policy, said she could not comment on the Oregon plan without seeing it herself.

But she said other states have proposed amendments to their plans, which get a "careful look" from federal education officials.

The U.S. Department of Education has shown some signs of flexibility in the past year, making modifications to No Child Left Behind's requirements for severely disabled students and non-English speaking students.

And Education Secretary Rod Paige, the key architect of No Child Left Behind, is leaving the administration. Margaret Spelling, the Bush adviser nominated to replace him, reportedly has a reputation as being a strong advocate of the law, but willing to listen to outside voices.

— Julia Silverman, Associated Press


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