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Flexibility Increased for Federal Testing Mandate

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The U.S. Department of Education has announced another round of flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act, this time aimed at helping schools that narrowly miss the law's mandate for high participation on standardized tests.

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The new policy allows states to average participation rates for a given school over a two- or three-year period if the school misses the federal threshold in its most recent testing. The policy also permits a student to be excluded from a school's calculation in the case of a serious medical emergency.

For More Info
A press release and fact sheet describing the change is available from the Department of Education.

"Full participation … is at the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act," Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in a March 29 conference call held to discuss the policy revision with reporters. The department remains "absolutely committed" to the law's test-participation mandate, he said, but added, "I don't think Congress' intent, or the president's intent, was to be unreasonable."

Secretary Paige publicly announced the change earlier that day at a conference in Orlando, Fla., sponsored by the National School Boards Association.

Under the federal law, beyond showing academic progress, schools must demonstrate that at least 95 percent of students participated in statewide assessments. That requirement must be met for all students in a school, as well as for subgroups of students, such as those living in poverty or from racial-minority groups.

The participation mandate has proved a significant challenge in some states. For instance, in Georgia, 135 schools did not make "adequate yearly progress" last school year under the No Child Left Behind law solely because they missed the 95 percent threshold.

Douglas B. Mesecar, the Education Department's deputy chief of staff for policy, said that almost every state had at least some schools that were identified as making inadequate progress based on participation alone, with the number that fell in this category ranging from a low of about 1 percent or 2 percent of schools to "the high teens."

Policy Not Retroactive

The March 29 announcement was the fourth time since December that Education Department officials—facing widespread complaints about core requirements in the law—have made administrative changes to the measure, which President Bush signed into law in January 2002. Previously, the department relaxed requirements related to testing students with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency, as well as to the law's mandate to ensure "highly qualified" teachers in all classrooms. ("Federal Rules for Teachers Are Relaxed," March 24, 2004.)

Secretary Paige emphasized that all of the changes were in the works beginning last October, based on feedback the department had received from states, districts, and others.

Asked whether the department would be announcing any further flexibility changes in the near future, Mr. Paige suggested it was unlikely. "There's nothing else in the queue," he said in the telephone session with reporters. At the same time, he emphasized that the department was still open to considering additional issues.

"This does not mean we've closed our eyes," he said, "or closed our ears."

Under the new policy, if a school falls short of 95 percent test-participation in a given year, a state may also factor in data from the previous one or two years for overall school participation and for that of a specific subgroup. If that two- or three-year average meets or exceeds 95 percent, then the school may be considered as having met the adequate yearly progress requirement for test participation. For instance, if a school's participation rate was 94 percent in the 2002-03 school year, it could still meet the federal mandate if its participation rates were 95 percent and 96 percent for the previous two years.

The second part of the announcement deals with the rare circumstance when a student cannot take the assessment during the entire testing window, including makeup dates, because of a significant medical emergency.

"For example, this might include a situation in which a student is recovering from a car accident," said a department fact sheet. "These students remain enrolled at the school, although such circumstances might prohibit them from participating in the test during the testing window."

At the same time, states already have considerable leeway to look at the reasons students didn't take tests—such as student illness—when considering appeals from schools that were originally identified as not making adequate yearly progress.

Mr. Mesecar of the Education Department said what's different under the just-announced policy is that a medical emergency would not require a school to appeal to the state.

Secretary Paige made clear that the new participation-rate policy does not mean states can go back and revisit previous determinations for their schools.

"This does not apply retroactively," he said.

Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, said he was generally pleased with the announcement.

"I think they did pretty well this time," he said. "I wish they had made it retroactive, but I always wish that."

He predicted that the changes will help avoid problems some schools have encountered with the participation requirement.

"It doesn't solve every situation," he said, "but it makes sense and it's a step in the right direction."

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The correct number of Georgia schools that did not make "adequate yearly progress" last school year solely because they missed the 95 percent threshold is 187.

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