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Published in Print: April 7, 2004, as States Given More Leeway On Test Rule

States Given More Leeway On Test Rule

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The U.S. Department of Education’s latest move to grant more flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act, this time aimed at helping schools that narrowly miss the law’s requirement for high participation on standardized tests, was generally welcomed last week. But the appetite for further adjustments appears to be growing.

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

See Also...

Read the accompanying table, "Changing the Rules."

"We are listening and making common-sense adjustments," Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in announcing the change on March 29 before the Orlando, Fla., convention of the National School Boards Association. At the same time, he emphasized that the law’s test-participation mandate is "not some arbitrary policy."

"It is at the heart of No Child Left Behind. … It ensures that every child counts," Mr. Paige told the NSBA members.

‘Flaws Remain’

Under the federal law, beyond showing academic progress, schools must demonstrate that at least 95 percent of students participated in statewide tests. The rule must be met for students schoolwide, as well as for subgroups of students, such as those who are poor or are members of racial minorities.

Edward J. McElroy, the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, called last week’s change and other recent adjustments to the No Child Left Behind Act’s rules "a hopeful sign" from the Bush administration.

"But recent interpretations of NCLB by the Department of Education amount to little more than half-steps and tinkering, when significant flaws remain," Mr. McElroy said in a March 30 statement.

‘Nothing Else in the Queue’

The participation mandate has proved a big challenge in some states. For instance, in Georgia, 187 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, according to information provided by the state last week. ("Schools Seek Participation on Test Days," March 31, 2004.)

Douglas B. Mesecar, the federal 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.

Last week’s announcement marked the fourth time since December that Education Department officials—facing widespread complaints about core requirements in the law—have made administrative changes that offer new leeway under 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 on ensuring "highly qualified" teachers in all classrooms. ("Federal Rules for Teachers Are Relaxed," March 24, 2004.)

Secretary Paige emphasized during a March 29 conference call with reporters 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 that was unlikely.

"There’s nothing else in the queue," he said. At the same time, he stressed that the department was still open to considering additional issues.

"This does not mean we’ve closed our eyes," the secretary said, "or closed our ears."

Georgia state schools Superintendent Kathy Cox praised the department’s latest action.

"I think it’s going to help a lot," she said. "We really got hit with this participation rate [issue]" during the 2002-03 school year.

Ms. Cox noted that in most cases, those schools that did not make adequate progress solely because of the participation mandate missed the threshold by a narrow margin.

F. Patricia Sullivan, a deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, in Washington, said: "We welcome any flexibility that the department wants to come forward with. ... We’re pleased that they’re trying, and we’re going to keep pushing on the department to use the flexibility that it has."

At the same time, she said it wasn’t yet clear to her how much of a difference the policy alteration would make in helping schools.

Ross E. Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that has supported aggressive accountability measures, argued that the test- participation changes were a "reasonable" accommodation.

"The [policy] that they announced appears to account for extenuating circumstances," he said, "but doesn’t water down the requirements."

Under the new policy, if a school falls short of the 95 percent test-participation standard 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 policy change 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."

‘Out of the Tube’

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

Mr. Mesecar of the Education Department acknowledged that existing discretion. What’s different under the just-announced policy, he said, is that a medical emergency would not require a school to appeal to the state.

Superintendent Cox of Georgia said that some schools in her state were granted such appeals last year, but that they had already received negative publicity.

"It’s like the toothpaste is already out of the tube," she said. "It was a very ‘gotcha’ kind of thing. … So I think it’s going to help schools, and help [news]papers get accurate information."

Secretary Paige made clear that the new participation-rate policy does not mean states can 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 disappointed by that limitation, but he still praised the changes.

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

Mr. Hunter predicted that the policy change would help some schools avoid problems they have encountered.

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

Vol. 23, Issue 30, Pages 1,28-29

Web Resources
  • View the Department of Education's March 29, 2004, release on the new policy for calculating participation rates, plus remarks by Secretary Paige.
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