Published Online: June 6, 2006
Published in Print: June 7, 2006, as Education Dept. Warns of Inaccurate NCLB E-Mails

Education Dept. Warns of Inaccurate NCLB E-Mails

The U.S. Department of Education is seeking to debunk widely circulated e-mails that erroneously say the No Child Left Behind Act mandates that students who fail their 10th grade reading and math tests must accept an inferior high school completion certificate that would prohibit them from attending college or vocational school.

“These e-mails are inaccurate, could lead to misunderstanding, and need to be corrected,” Chad Colby, an Education Department spokesman, said in a May 24 statement.

The e-mails, which appear to have been circulating for more than a month urge recipients to spread the word about a provision “slipped in” by President Bush during a supposed 2004 revision to the federal law. The e-mails assert that students who do not pass their states’ 10th grade tests in language arts and mathematics must either drop out of school and seek a General Educational Development credential or accept a “certificate of completion.”

The No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush signed into law in January 2002, has not been amended at all, Mr. Colby pointed out. It is slated for reauthorization next year. And each state, not the federal government, sets its own requirements for graduation, Mr. Colby said.

He noted that the No Child Left Behind law does require that states calculate a graduation rate based on their regular high school diplomas awarded, a calculation that excludes the GED or certificates of completion.

The e-mails incorrectly describe such certificates as barring students from going into the U.S. armed forces, attending college or trade school, or receiving a federal loan for “as long as they live.”

At least one version of the message refers to that supposed system of credentialing as “the paper plantation”—an apparent comparison to a slave plantation—and urges recipients to share the information with “everyone you know who has school-age children.”

Indiana, whose test is specifically mentioned in multiple versions of the e-mail, does issue certificates of completion, said Jason K. Bearce, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. But those certificates are used for students in special education and do not bar them from later seeking a GED credential or other diploma, applying for federal student loans, or joining the military, Mr. Bearce said. He said his agency had fielded a handful of calls seeking clarification on the e-mails.

Mr. Colby said the U.S. Education Department had received similar calls, but he could not estimate how many.

Urban Legend

Versions of the e-mail also say that a high school in Indiana, identified in at least one of the messages as William A. Wirt Senior High School in Gary, issued only five diplomas last year and 82 certificates of completion. Mr. Bearce of the Indiana education department said that the largest number of such certificates awarded for a single high school in the state last year was 29, for a school with 385 graduates.

Return to Sender

E-mail messages are circulating and causing confusion concerning the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The version below was posted April 19 on a personal page on the MySpace.com social-networking site. The U.S. Department of Education responded generally to the circulating e-mails with a May 24 clarification.

One Version of Disputed E-mail:

Hi [deleted], ...Please talk to [a student's name] and make certain that he does not accept the "Certificate of Completion." It is for students who are unable to pass both the Language Arts and Math portions of the 10th grade ISTEP. [Indiana's state test]. Students must take the same 10th grade test over in the 11th and 12th grades until they pass both portions.

If they are unable to pass the 10th grade test by the 12th grade then they have two options:

1. Drop out and go to a GED program or, 2. accept a "Certificate of Completion" - it is NOT a diploma

Once a student accepts it, they cannot ever get a diploma or a GED. ...

This is the portion of NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND (2001) that Bush slipped in during the 2004 revision of the NCLB bill. It has not been publicized. ...

I refer to it, during my college lectures and to my students, as the "Paper Plantation." It is better for students to drop out and get into a GED program so they may seek other forms of education, later in life, if they desire to do so. ... Please pass this information on. Thank you.

From the Statement by Education Department Spokesman Chad Colby:

… Each state sets its own requirements for high school diplomas, General Educational Development tests (GED) and “Certificates of Completion.” NCLB does not change those state definitions, but does require, for NCLB purposes, that states calculate a graduation rate that is based on a “regular high school diploma.” In practice, this means that a GED or “Certificate of Completion” does not count positively in the graduation rate calculation.

Similarly, most colleges and most trade schools require a high school diploma or its equivalent for entrance, so anyone holding a certificate of completion would need to go back and complete the necessary academic requirements to get a diploma before they can apply for admission to the school, and apply for federal student aid. This requirement existed before the No Child Left Behind Act. …

According to Indiana education officials, a GED, a certificate of completion, a certificate of course completion, or a certificate by any other name does not terminate a person’s right to pursue a high school diploma under Indiana law. …

Varying versions of the erroneous message have turned up on numerous Web sites and Internet forums, including at least one site that seeks to dispel so-called urban legends, http://urban legends.about.com. The education e-mail was posted on that site alongside tales of giant grizzly bears and camel spiders.

David Emery, a writer for the urban-legends site who investigated the e-mail, said he received some 50 messages alerting him to the e-mails during the first two weeks of May.

“Apart from the obvious factors, such as the fact that these allegations, if true, could severely impact our children’s chances of future success, I would attribute the virulence of this rumor to its conspiratorial undertone,” Mr. Emery said in an e-mail message. “Nothing stokes the rumor mill like a good conspiracy theory.”

Mr. Emery noted that at least one Web site on which the message appears, a posting dated April 19 on a personal page on the popular MySpace.com social-networking site, attributes it to S. Leonard Brown, who until recently served as the principal of the 21st Century Charter School in Gary, Ind.

Dana Johnson, the general counsel for the Indianapolis-based Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, which sponsors the charter school, said her organization had received numerous calls in recent weeks asking whether Mr. Brown was the author of the original e-mail.

Mr. Brown resigned in early May, according to Ms. Johnson, but she would not disclose the reason, saying it was a personnel matter.

Ms. Johnson said she has been correcting callers who ask about the validity of the e-mails’ message.

“It’s been my goal, to set the record straight,” she said in a May 24 interview.

Education Week e-mailed Mr. Brown at an address included in an Indiana charter school directory. Michele E. Posey, who identified herself as an associate of his, responded May 25 to that e-mail with one saying that Mr. Brown was “unable to comment at this time.”

How Believable?

Monty Neill, the executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based watchdog group that is critical of standardized testing, said the fact that so many people were apparently willing to accept the e-mails as accurate points up the “punitive” nature of the No Child Left Behind law as written and implemented.

“NCLB is both harmful and intrusive,” he said. “People find it very easy to believe that something like this could be in the law.”

Yvette Willis, the president of the Parent Teacher Student Association for Crossland High School in the 136,000-student Prince George’s County, Md., school district, said she was alarmed when she first saw one of the e-mails. She forwarded it to some of the parents in her group.

“I thought, oh my goodness … what next?” she said.

But others who received or heard about the message quickly dismissed it as inaccurate.

“The whole thing looked kind of flaky to me,” said Beth Cady, the public-information associate for the International Reading Association, based in Newark, Del.

Vol. 25, Issue 39, Pages 5,18

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