No Child Heading Off to High School
Ohanian Comment: What a metaphor from the Bush flunky: "The administration plans to stick to its guns on No Child Left Behind." Bring on the mercenaries.
WASHINGTON – Attention future high school students: President Bush says things are going to get a lot harder.
Among students stepping up from grade school, that proclamation implies that the regimen of testing and rigorous study of No Child Left Behind Act would follow them to high school, affecting graduation.
"It means high school is getting tougher and will be getting tougher," said Sandy Kress, an Austin attorney, Democrat and an architect of the president's first-term education initiative that increased testing and accountability in elementary and middle schools.
Mr. Bush's plan to extend the law to high schools is just one plank in a busy second-term education agenda. The president signaled in November that education remains a top priority, appointing Margaret Spellings, a domestic policy adviser and longtime confidante, to replace Education Secretary Rod Paige.
Ms. Spellings, a former education lobbyist in Austin, is expected to forcefully advocate the wide-ranging agenda. It includes initiatives on higher education, adolescent literacy, school choice and expanded grants for low-income students.
Administration officials said Mr. Bush's re-election also brings another certainty: No Child Left Behind, an initiative that drew fire from educators, will remain.
"The administration plans to stick to its guns on No Child Left Behind," said David Dunn, special assistant to the president.
The next logical step, he said, is to expand the law's testing and standards to high schools. And the president wants to ensure students are ready by improving adolescent literacy.
Currently, No Child Left Behind stipulates only one year of testing in high school.
The White House wants to require testing in the ninth, 10th and 11th grades. Additionally, all 12th-graders would be required to take the National Assessment of Educational Progress – presently a voluntary exam that helps schools measure themselves against those in other states.
Critics even agree
Even educators who questioned No Child Left Behind agree something needs to be done. Simply stated: Graduates lack the skills and education to take on college work or to enter the workplace.
U.S elementary students do relatively well in math and science when measured against their peers in other developed nations. But according to a unit of the Education Department, they fall behind by the eighth grade.
They score below the international average of 41 nations in mathematics. And although scoring above average in science, eighth-graders ranked below 16 nations.
By the 12th grade, U.S. students were less likely to take mathematics or science than their overseas peers and ranked below average in test scores. And surveys show that nearly 30 percent of college freshmen require remedial courses in math or English.
"I had discussions this summer with superintendents ... and there is a feeling amongst them that high schools are not working as well as they should," said Bruce Hunter, a government affairs expert at the American Association of School Administrators.
The White House is plotting its legislative strategy. The internal debate is focused on whether to roll out the high school initiatives as separate legislation or include them in one or more other education proposals. There are several education bills scheduled for reauthorization during the next several years.
Among them, No Child Left Behind, which comes up in 2007 and is a possible vehicle for the high school initiatives.
Despite resistance from groups such as the National Education Association, the giant teachers' union, analysts said Mr. Bush would probably prevail.
Andrew Rotherham, an education expert at the centrist Democratic Progressive Policy Institute, said Republicans are reaping double political gains with education initiatives. In addition to their popularity with Republicans voters, the White House found that education resonates with minorities.
"You will see the president exploit that over the next four years," he said.
Testing was a key element in No Child Left Behind. Threatened with eventual sanctions, administration officials believe schools will use test scores to discover deficiencies and raise high school academic standards.
"You cannot fix a problem unless you can diagnose it," Mr. Dunn said.
Sheila Maher, an assistant superintendent in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district, noted that Texas students already are tested through 11th grade. Other education experts said Texas is among a handful of states leading the nation in boosting the rigor of high school.
"That goal is an important one," Ms. Maher said.
Texas doing better?
A recent study by the education advocacy group Achieve Inc. showed that Texas, Arkansas and Indiana are implementing curriculum improvements that will adequately prepare students to start college or enter the workplace.
Starting with this year's ninth-graders, Texas high school students will be required to take three years of math, including algebra I, algebra II and geometry. Achieve found Texas is among six states that require four years of grade-level English.
The state also now requires students to take three years of high school science.
"Texas deserves credit for the steps it is taking," said Matt Gandal, executive vice president at Achieve.
As federal officials move to apply the higher standards nationwide, Ms. Maher said they should take a lesson from No Child Left Behind: They should be more flexible about testing some students, such as the disabled and those from immigrant families still learning English.
Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, has another objective: He wants to ensure that the tests will be tough enough. He said far too many states give exams that test high school students using measurements appropriate to the seventh- and eighth-grade levels.
"The details and the design matter immensely," he said. "There is a need to increase rigor and increase expectations."
Roy Garcia, principal of South Grand Prairie High School, says his school is among those lifting standards. But he worries that federal mandates will come without adequate resources and might not be coordinated with the state.
To make learning more interesting and relevant, the high school is divided into five academies, each focusing on a specific discipline such as business or the performing arts. And more of his students are completing Advanced Placement work.
"We have definitely raised the academic bar. But at the same time, we are not there yet," Mr. Garcia said.
Where does he need help? Mr. Garcia said he must close the achievement gap for minority students, a challenging task that more testing can't solve. "There is more to judging a school than the test scores," he said.
The issue: High school students lack the education and skills to do college work or to enter the workforce.
The president's plan: Expand the No Child Left Behind Act to require testing in all grades through 12th grade. Provide help for adolescent literacy so middle school students are ready for high school.
Cross currents: Another plan that mandates testing is expected to be opposed by Democratic critics of No Child Left Behind. And even supporters will press the White House to pay for its initiatives.
Proposals spur concern about money
How much is enough? When it comes to education funding, schools seem to always want more.
Educators have complained they lack the cash to implement No Child Left Behind although annual federal education spending increased 34 percent to $56.57 billion during President Bush's first term.
"The big fight about No Child Left Behind has been about money," said Michael Carr, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
So with proposals coming to expand the program in high schools, the drumbeat for money can be heard. Mr. Bush has proposed a $200 million fund for states to develop performance plans, $250 million annually for testing and a $500 million incentive fund to reward teachers.
Educators, mindful of budget deficits, question whether the promises will be fulfilled. Their fears might be well founded: For the 2005 fiscal year that began Oct. 1, Congress provided the Education Department its smallest budget hike in nearly a decade.
Congress approved a 1.6 percent increase, or about $760 million less than the president sought.
Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, acknowledged that money is tight. But he said Mr. Bush intends to fund his priorities. "And education has been his top domestic priority," he said.
Dallas Morning News
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