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Published in Print: February 2, 2007, as Bush Plan Would Heighten NCLB Focus on High School

Bush Plan Would Heighten NCLB Focus on High School

State policymakers wary of effect on their efforts.

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For its 42 years, the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act has emphasized the “elementary” in its title.

Now the Bush administration, with its proposals to reauthorize the current version of the ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act, wants to use the law to change the way high schools prepare students for college and careers. The plan would require schools to assess students’ readiness for life after graduation and, for the first time, would create a funding stream dedicated to high schools in the law’s $12.7 billion flagship program, Title I.

“The kinds of recommendations we’re making here flesh out ideas for a part of the educational spectrum that needs attention,” Kristin D. Conklin, a senior adviser to Undersecretary of Education Sara Martinez Tucker, said in an interview this week. “This blueprint is meant to accelerate experimentation but not derail it.”

Education policymakers in the states question, though, whether expanding the federal government’s reach into high schools, especially using the NCLB law’s emphasis on testing, would help existing state-based efforts to make high school curricula more rigorous.

This is “probably an unwarranted expansion of NCLB,” said David L. Shreve, the senior education committee director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The biggest ongoing effort by states to bolster high school academics, the American Diploma Project, has steadily expanded and is starting to change policies for the better, other observers say. They say it should be allowed to blossom under whatever changes happen to high schools when Congress reauthorizes the 5-year-old law.

“The question is how do we allow [the diploma project] to continue to progress along with federal support,” said Amy Wilkins, the vice president of government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, one of three Washington-based groups supporting the 26-state effort.

Team Effort

The push to improve the quality of U.S. high schools has been a national priority since governors, philanthropists, and business leaders convened a major meeting on the subject two years ago in Washington. Such efforts should translate into federal action, advocates for high school reform say, and the reauthorization of the NCLB law, scheduled for this year, is the best vehicle for doing so.

“In major school reforms, it needs to happen at all levels,” said Jamie P. Fasteau, the director of policy development for the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based group that pushes for improvement of high school.

In addition to the Bush administration’s proposal, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, has introduced an NCLB reauthorization bill that includes efforts to coordinate education policies from preschool through the end of college. The efforts would need to track curricula through all grades to ensure they are giving high school students the skills and knowledge to succeed after graduation.

Sen. Kennedy is also drafting a separate plan to give additional funding and assistance to middle schools and high schools, an aide to the senator said. Those efforts would include literacy interventions and dropout prevention, said the aide, who asked not to be named because the proposals are still in development.

Bush Administration’s NCLB Plan

While focusing on improving persistently low-performing schools, the administration’s proposal for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act would:

• Require states to include their scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress when reporting their results of their own tests. The reporting would show how the state’s standards compare with NAEP standards, which are more challenging than those in most states.

• Mandate that states add high school exams in reading and mathematics that would measure whether students are prepared to enter college or careers. The exams would begin in the 2010-11 school year.

• Standardize states’ graduation-rate data to measure the percentage of students who graduate within four years of entering high school.

• Establish a new section of the federal Title I compensatory education program dedicated to retaining high school students at risk of dropping out.

• Expand the Teacher Incentive Fund, a program that supports efforts to compensate teachers and principals based on the achievement of their students.

• Factor student achievement in science into evaluations of schools’ adequate yearly progress. Reading and math are currently the only subjects used to determine AYP.

The Bush plan includes the most specific ideas on the table so far. It would add new tests to high schools and dedicate a portion of Title I money to high schools.

Under the current law, states must test students in reading, mathematics, and science in one high school grade. The reading and math tests are used to determine districts’ and schools’ success in making adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

In its No Child Left Behind plan released last month, the Department of Education proposes that states set two more years of reading and math testing in the high school grades. The purpose of such testing would be to assess students’ preparedness for college or careers. The results of the new tests would not count for accountability purposes under the NCLB law, the department says.

The proposal differs from President Bush’s earlier plan to require testing every year in grades 9-11, with the results figuring in districts’ and schools’ accountability ratings. Congress rejected that proposal, which the president touted in his 2004 re-election campaign.

The new plan “does not mandate a one-size-fits-all high school assessment strategy,” Ms. Conklin of the Education Department said. Efforts under the American Diploma Project to create tests to measure students’ skills are “fully consistent with what we’re asking for from states.”

But Mr. Shreve of the National Conference of State Legislatures said he doubts that the new tests would be used only for individual evaluation purposes.

“They’ve proven that once they get the foot in the door with assessments, sometime down the road, it’s going to be part of an accountability system,” Mr. Shreve said of federal policymakers.

New Money

Since the ESEA’s original passage in 1965 as one of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society initiatives, the Title I program for disadvantaged students has structured its financing formula to favor elementary schools. The strategy was to intervene when students were young in the hope that they would show progress in later years.

Now that improving high schools is widely identified as a national priority, high schools are almost certain to receive a greater share of Title I, the biggest federal program in precollegiate education.

Under the Bush plan, districts would be required to give high schools 90 percent of any increases it received under their Title I grants. The change would provide a “substantial increase for Title I high school students,” the department’s NCLB proposal says.

What’s more, the proposal would expand districts’ power to redirect money from specific programs toward broader school improvement projects. Currently, districts may tap up to half their grants under NCLB programs for other purposes, but federal vocational education money must be reserved for its intended purpose.

The proposal, unveiled by the department Jan. 24, would allow districts to transfer all of an NCLB program’s money to other efforts and would add the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act to the list of programs whose dollars could be used for other efforts.

Last year, Congress rejected the Bush administration’s proposal to finance high school changes under Title I by using the $1.3 billion spent under the Perkins program.

“We’re very concerned,” said Alisha D. Hyslop, the assistant director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education, an Alexandria, Va.-based group that represents educators in that field. “Districts are facing so many funding pressures under No Child Left Behind. That [transfer option] could be too much of a carrot to turn down.”

However Congress decides to structure its high school efforts, those leading the efforts to improve high schools say such moves will require a delicate balancing act.

“The goal should be to help accelerate reform and sustain momentum without imposing requirements that restrict states’ abilities to innovate, or that turn reform into an exercise in compliance,” Achieve Inc. wrote in its newsletter last month. The Washington-based group is coordinating the American Diploma Project’s 26-state effort, in which states agree to align their policies to better prepare students for college and careers. Achieve, a group founded by state governors and business leaders to promote strong academic standards, has not take a position on the Bush administration’s proposals.

“The challenge for the federal government is to find ways to support and encourage the good work already under way while providing incentives for states that have not yet acted to do so,” the Achieve newsletter said.

Staff Writer Sean Cavanagh contributed to this report.

Vol. 26, Issue 22, Pages 1,21

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