No Child Left Behind: Giving the States a Break

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Third graders Sarah Kalani, Daniella Gama-Diaz, Paige Simpson and Danielle Levine listen as teacher Shannon Daniel explains a reading lesson at Eagle Elementary School in West Bloomfield Township, Mich.

After three years of criticism for being too strict in the application of its No Child Left Behind law, which established strict standards for measuring students' progress, the Bush administration is finally beginning to show some leniency. Last week, the Department of the Education announced it would allow two states, Tennessee and North Carolina, to get credit for improvements in individual student test scores, even if the students aren't yet passing the state exam. For example, a North Carolina school will now get credit if a student's scores improve from 40 to 65 (on a scale of 100) from third grade to fourth. Before this change, the school could get credit only if the entire segment of students — fourth-grade Hispanic students in math, for example — improved their scores. North Carolina estimates that about 40 of the 932 schools in the state that didn't show improvement in test scores under the traditional parameters of the law would be considered successful under the new rules.

This change is one in a series of moves over the last year by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings intended to placate critics of NCLB, the education law passed in 2002 that requires states to test their students in math and reading in grades three through eight, and once more in high school. The law requires states to make lists of schools that score badly on state tests and allows students to transfer out of the worst schools. While the law passed with overwhelming majorities in Congress, many school superintendents, principals and teachers — as well as politicians — from across the country have attacked the law for being too draconian and focused on testing. Even state lawmakers in Bush-friendly states like Utah have strongly condemned it.

In the first years of the law, Bush administration officials rejected most attempts to give states any leeway in complying with the law. But as support has flagged among educators and in state legislatures, the Education Department has shown signs of leniency. It is now considering allowing states to create special exams for students with disabilities, rather than mandating those students to take the traditional state tests. The law originally required school districts to allow students to transfer from a school if its test scores lagged for two straight years; now those schools don't have to provide transfers for those students if they are offered free tutoring instead. And the Department is allowing some failing school districts to offer the tutoring themselves, rather than requiring districts to hire independent companies as previously mandated by the law.

These changes haven't dampened the opposition to NLCB. State lawmakers still think many parts of the law, such as the goal that all students pass state exams by 2013, are unrealistic, and say the federal government hasn't provided enough money to enable student scores to to improve as rapidly as the law calls for. David Shreve, who works on the education committee for the National Conference of State Legislatures, dismisses much of Spellings' recent flexibility, noting that the Department of Education, while approving the new model for evaluating student performance in Tennessee and North Carolina, rejected similar applications of more than a dozen other states. "I think it's rather disingenuous to float the idea of all these things you can to do to fix No Child Left Behind and then award it to only a couple of states," Shreve says.

At the same time, proponents of the law are concerned that the Department of Education is going too far in relaxing the No Child Left Behind standards. Mike Petrilli, who worked in the Education Department in Bush's first term, is concerned that states like Missouri have recently lowered the scores students need in order to pass state tests. He also complains that the Education Department has done little to enforce a provision in the law that requires all teachers to either have a degree or pass a competency test in the subjects they teach. "There's been a lot of concern that Secretary Spellings and her office have been providing too much flexibility and allowing [states] to water down its intent," says Petrilli. Spellings argues she has brought "commonsense changes" while keeping the law tough."

Still, among the people who could change the law — lawmakers on Capitol Hill — there remains a rare bipartisan consensus behind it. The House of Representatives last week opened a series of hearings to look into No Child Left Behind. At the start of the hearing, House Education Committee Chairman Howard McKeon, a Republican from California, said "the impact of No Child Left Behind has been dramatic, and a positive step forward for students, teachers, parents, and taxpayers." The committee's top Democrat, George Miller, was scarcely less enthusiastic: "No Child Left Behind is making a difference," he said.

But the law hasn't lived up the hype, from either proponents or critics. National test scores have barely budged since it was instituted. At the same time, despite warnings from critics, the law hasn't turned all schools into testing factories, eliminated all music and P.E. classes so that schools can focus on math and reading tests, or sent hordes of students from bad schools into overcrowded good ones. And even as changes are made to answer states' concerns, the outlines of the law and the testing it has mandated seem here to stay. In fact, more tests are coming: No Child Left Behind requires all states to start giving students science exams by 2008.