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No High School Student Left Untested?

Don't you just love the solution of certifying 8th graders before allowing them to go to high school? With this tests-know-best solution, some kids would never get out of first grade.

Future high school students: Sharpen your No. 2 pencils.

President Bush wants annual state reading and math exams to follow you to high school.

Last week, he touted his second-term agenda to improve the American high school by using the same testing and consequences that his administration has used to shake up the elementary grades.

The White House plans to demand state reading and math tests in grades three through 11. In addition, 12th graders would be required to take the National Assessment of Educational Progress, now a voluntary exam that compares schools across the states.

The changes would broaden the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires one year of state testing during grades 10 to 12. Under the law, students in grades three through eight begin taking annual reading and math tests this spring.

"Testing in high schools will make sure that our children are employable for the jobs of the 21st century," Bush said last week, during his first education speech since being re-elected. "Testing will allow teachers to improve their classes. Testing will enable schools to track. Testing will make sure that the diploma is not merely a sign of endurance, but the mark of a young person ready to succeed."

Improving high schools has become a hot topic, with calls of alarm in recent months from Bush, governors, employers and college professors. The reason: Many high school students aren't ready for college or work after they graduate.

Randy Dunn, interim Illinois schools superintendent, welcomes the attention to high school reform but is concerned about expanding what he views as an already flawed law.

Under No Child Left Behind, limited-English and special education students are expected to meet the same testing standards as general education students. Dunn calls that unfair.

"I would prefer to see discussions of how to fix the onerous aspects of No Child Left Behind and get that addressed before expanding (its) scope to high schools with the testing requirement," he said.

Expanding standardized tests would not be a huge change for Southland high schools. Many voluntarily give ninth- and 10th-graders ACT-style exams called PLAN and EXPLORE.

"(Those tests) are used entirely to help us do better on the 11th-grade exam," Oak Lawn High School Principal Michael Riordan said.

But tying their results to the No Child law would mean more opportunities for schools to fail to meet the law's targets, triggering expensive sanctions such as mandatory tutoring or school transfers, according to educators.

"We would be under the NCLB hammer if we broaden the scope," Dunn said.

The expanded testing also would exacerbate the debate on whether tests are the best way to judge schools.

"That is a somewhat of a way of life now," Riordan said. "The public judges us on the basis of test scores."

Adding a national 12th-grade exam alarms some educators who worry about the introduction of another set of education standards. School districts have increasingly aligned their curriculums to better achieve state standards.

"It's like we're being sent off in 15 different directions," Evergreen Park High School District 231 Supt. James Gallagher said.

Community High School District 218 Supt. Kevin Burns would rather see an "exit exam" at the eighth-grade level to certify the skills of incoming freshmen. He recently visited a remedial class at a District 218 high school where several students read at the third-grade level.

"Unless we get them from (the) third-grade (level) to ninth grade, we'd be labeled as failing," Burns said.

Bush said his high school plan, a mix of consolidated programs and new money, would cost $1.5 billion. But it may be squeezed quickly, with a record federal budget deficit limiting domestic spending.

Congress, for example, took Bush's $100 million request for his "Striving Readers" program and cut it to $25 million this year. Bush now wants $200 million for the program.

"Many of these ideas are the right thing to do, and they're the right issues we're probably late getting to them," said Patricia Sullivan, director of the independent Center on Education Policy. "But if we're going down this path, we have to have the resources."

Bush won bipartisan support for No Child Left Behind, the controversial 2002 law that has shaped education nationally by demanding that schools help children regardless of race, wealth, disability or background and imposing strict penalties for schools that fail to do so.

Democrats say Bush hasn't provided enough money for No Child, making them wary of supporting his new initiative.

"This is more mandates with no more funding, and I'm troubled by that," said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), echoing the position of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), a key backer initially of No Child Left Behind.

Federal spending on programs covered under No Child law has increased 40 percent since Bush took office, from $17.38 billion to $24.35 billion. But spending went up only 1.7 percent this year, about the same rate that the entire Education Department received.

Under the No Child law, schools that receive Title I poverty funds and fail to make sufficient academic progress face mounting penalties, such as ensuring students can transfer elsewhere. Holding high schools accountable the same way as elementary schools may be difficult because a smaller number get federal poverty aid.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Kati Phillips may be reached at kphillips@dailysouthtown.com or (708) 633-5976.

2004 Associated Press All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

— Kati Phillips, Associated Press
Daily Southtown


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