Federal Government Quell States' Revolt on No Child Left Behind
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
A rebellion against the federal No Child Left Behind Act in more than half the states' legislatures has fizzled out, for now, with only a handful of Vermont school districts following through on threats to ignore the new education law.
At the height of this year's backlash against President Bush's signature domestic policy initiative, 27 state legislatures drafted 54 bills to protest the costs, penalties and unprecedented federal oversight of school policy under the 2002 act. U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige and his deputies crisscrossed the country on scores of trips to smooth over differences with state legislators and educators.
In the end, only the Democratic governor of Maine and the Republican governors of Utah and Vermont signed bills critical of the act, which is staunchly defended by the Republican Bush administration.
The National Education Association had threatened to file suit challenging the law and set out to recruit states to join in. No state answered the call.
The firestorm of criticism from states wasn't all for naught, though. Fearing election-year fallout, the Education Department made several changes to its rules enforcing the law, which sets out to raise student performance and requires states to give annual reading and mathematics tests to students in third- through eighth-grade and 10th grade.
Behind the scenes, at least 40 state agencies currently are negotiating for even greater flexibility in federal rules to try to reduce the number of schools penalized by the act. Since the law was passed, more than a quarter of the nation's schools have been tagged as "needing improvement."
Some analysts predict renewed political furor over the law if the number of penalized schools increases as expected when this year's testing results are released by states through the summer and early fall.
Among the states that took action to protest No Child Left Behind, Vermont passed a law that gives individual school districts the ability to opt out of the law. But only a few have chosen to do that, said a state education spokeswoman.
In Utah, the Legislature canned a bill to opt out of the law entirely and chose instead to study the cost of the federal mandates, after federal education officials rushed into the state capital to quell outrage. The Maine law started out as a bill to forbid state money from being spent on the federal requirements, but ended up asking the state department of education to study the law's costs, said Patrick Phillips, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.
No state chose to ignore the federal mandates or forfeit federal dollars, but the noise definitely got the attention of the Education Department, which since December 2003 has made several significant changes to requirements. States now may defer the test scores of limited-English speakers for one year, a greater number of disabled students are allowed to take alternative tests and rural school districts will have more time to meet federal requirements for teacher qualifications.
Under the law, the number of students who pass state tests must steadily increase and all students must pass the tests by 2014. Schools are penalized if they miss the testing targets for two consecutive years, and subgroups of minorities, low-income and disabled children also must meet the benchmarks. Penalties range from allowing students to transfer to higher-scoring schools to providing extra tutoring to facing state takeover.
The goal for states is to whittle down the number of schools on the low-performing list, so they can focus on the truly troubled schools, said Scott Young, an education analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Justin Torres, a policy analyst for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, warned that the proposed changes might be undermining the law's intent of improving the achievement of disadvantaged students. "The art here is to balance the changes so we don't completely unravel the meaning and effect of [No Child Left Behind]," he said.
Several states have asked the federal education department to loosen the requirement that 95 percent of the grade levels tested show up for the exams every year, said Lori Cavell, an education researcher at the Council of Chief State School Officers. Instead, schools could average participation over two or three years, she said.
North Carolina has asked to limit the law's achievement standards to low-income students. Under that proposal, students from middle- and upper-income families would not have to pass state tests.
Tennessee is proposing that its schools would have to miss state benchmarks in the same subject for two consecutive years to be listed as a low-performing school. School districts would have to fall below state standards in both the same subject at the same grade level for two years to be penalized.
Many states also are asking to use statistical cushions, called confidence intervals, for small, rural schools or schools with small numbers of disadvantaged students, Cavell said. With a confidence interval, smaller groups can pass the tests with lower scores or a lower percentage of that group must pass the test.
And many states are asking to increase the minimum number of students for a subgroup's test scores to count against a school's achievement.
Ross Wiener, an education policy analyst at the Education Trust, charged that the changes will make some schools less accountable under the law. "Adding flexibility midstream may make things appear better than they really are," he said.