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Published in Print: May 3, 2006, as Spellings Addresses Testing, NCLB Issues

Spellings Addresses Testing, NCLB Issues

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On her way out of a summit on teachers and the federal No Child Left Behind Act here last week, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings found herself in an elevator next to Philadelphia schools chief Paul G. Vallas, who handed her a sheaf of papers about his district’s progress toward getting its teachers deemed highly qualified.

With the deadline looming at the end of the school year, Mr. Vallas—who runs a 210,000-student school system that has embraced much of President Bush’s accountability-oriented education philosophy—seemed eager to do a little lobbying. He suggested that he had successful teachers who might not meet the criteria for the “highly qualified” designation.

Ms. Spellings nodded, but later hinted that she would push Mr. Vallas to meet the deadline. “I’m going to lobby him, too,” she said.

Ms. Spellings’ April 27 trip to Philadelphia for the first of what will be at least four U.S. Department of Education-sponsored forums on the landmark federal education law also signaled how far the Bush administration believes the 4-year-old law has come and the distance it still needs to go—often with a push from the secretary.

This week, for instance, the department will start receiving bids from districts eager to tap into a $100 million Teacher Incentive Fund to help get talented teachers into struggling classrooms and keep them there.

But it won’t be easy. In Philadelphia, Ms. Spellings told a crowd of hundreds at school district headquarters that school officials across the country must “confront some of the sacred cows in education.” Those include the practice of pairing the best and often most experienced teachers with the students who are easiest to teach, she said.

In a wide-ranging interview afterwards, the secretary sketched out just how the national debate over education has changed since the No Child Left Behind law was enacted with bipartisan support during President Bush’s first year in office.

Ms. Spellings said the Teacher Incentive Fund is a starting point when it comes to getting the most out of good teachers.

A Continuing Conversation

But Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, who was at the event here, said his organization “strongly opposes” the fund. Existing federal grant programs could allow states to do the same things—such as institute merit pay—if they chose, he said.

“It doesn’t make sense to create a new program that has a narrow purpose,” he said.

Mr. Vallas said the law has forced his district to closely examine teacher qualifications.

“Sometimes deadlines produce results,” he said.

In tandem with the incentive fund, Secretary Spellings said, schools also must provide teachers with more tools. She lauded a presentation in Philadelphia that highlighted how detailed testing can show teachers which lessons have been successful and which need a new approach.

But the larger realization, she said, was that a conversation about detailed testing and how it can guide lessons day to day would hardly have been possible a few years ago. Schools then just weren’t using testing in that way, the secretary said.

That was before the NCLB law required testing of students in reading and mathematics annually in grades 3-8, and once during high school—and breakdowns of the results by group— to hold schools and districts accountable for the achievement of students of different races, as well as poor students, those in special education, and English-language learners.

Test Anxiety

But the growth in educational testing may have placed a strain on the system. Last week, Secretary Spellings met with representatives of more than a dozen testing companies to address concerns about errors in assessment.

Such concerns were dramatized recently when the College Board, which sponsors the SAT, acknowledged that students’ scores on more than 4,000 of the college-entrance exams were miscalculated.

The April 25 meeting with test-makers was a positive one, said Kevin F. Sullivan, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for communications and outreach.

Ms. Spellings “was pleased to learn that plans are already being put in place to improve quality control across the industry,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Sol H. Pelavin, the president and chief executive of the American Institutes for Research, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that provides some testing services, said Ms. Spellings raised concerns over whether the industry has the capacity to handle the type of testing being called for under the NCLB law.

“She seemed concerned because of NCLB, but also because of these mistakes that have been happening,” Mr. Pelavin said.

Implementation of the No Child Left Behind law has been the focus of other recent concerns, too. Late last month, the Associated Press reported on an analysis it conducted showing that the test scores of nearly 2 million students were being excluded from schools’ NCLB progress reports because the students belonged to racial subgroups that did not meet minimum group sizes determined by states with approval from the Education Department. ("Analysis Finds Minority NCLB Scores Widely Excluded," April 26, 2006)

“We can and will do a better, smarter job of looking” at that issue, Ms. Spellings said in the interview with Education Week, which occurred while she was returning to Washington by train after the Philadelphia meeting.

The Education Department will look more closely at the rationale for the threshold that each state has set for excluding a subgroup from a school’s annual progress report, she said.

“This whole thing is an evolution, and we’re always going to be moving toward … a continuous-improvement notion,” she said.

But Ms. Spellings said she was perplexed about the sudden concern in some quarters to see all groups’ test scores count toward school accountability.

“Where was the outrage five years ago, when 23 million students were uncounted? Now we’ve got them down to 1.7 [million],” she said, referring to the Associated Press analysis.

Looking Ahead

The debate over the law’s future will carry over to next year, when it comes up for reauthorization in Congress, though Ms. Spellings said that timeline may not be met. The secretary said she hopes the Education Department will be seen as a resource on No Child Left Behind for lawmakers.

“I think they’re going to look to us at the department to be as smart as they can be about what’s going on,” she said. “I think we have a ways to go on that.”

Vol. 25, Issue 34, Pages 27,29

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