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No Way Out

Call it the Catch-22 of the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001.

Under the law, schools must show not only that their overall student body is making "adequate yearly progress" on state tests, but also that a sufficient percentage of certain subgroups of students are likewise proficient. Among those subgroups: English-language learners. If one subgroup fails to meet the state-set thresholds, the school may be labeled as low- performing.

But the category of English-language learners differs from other subgroups, such as students of a particular race. Such students in fact become ineligible for the designation as they become fluent in English. What they leave behind in the subgroup, by definition, are students who aren't fluent. And, not surprisingly, those students don't score particularly well on tests generally given in English.

Obviously, it would be hard for a school district to show significant progress with this ever-evolving group, according to Scott P. Plotkin, the executive director of the California School Boards Association. Mr. Plotkin and several representatives of school boards' associations visited members of Congress and Bush administration officials this month to deliver a simple message: The requirement doesn't make sense.

According to Mr. Plotkin, administration officials acknowledged the problem to him. "It was sort of a forehead slapper—'We didn't think of that,'" he recalled of the conversations. He said no one actually promised to fix the problem.

But some in the administration, including Secretary of Education Rod Paige, were alerted to the problem in December. Mr. Paige, according to a Jan. 8 entry in The Federal Register, "recognizes the concern" and said language in the No Child Left Behind Act may give states enough flexibility to avoid the Catch- 22.

Mr. Plotkin said he and other school board representatives are particularly concerned about the law's effect on districts near the Mexican border. According to a recent study of more than 200 districts within 100 miles of the border, commissioned by four school boards' associations, a majority of those districts teach large numbers of children whose first language is Spanish and are English-language learners.

"Unless some bonus points are put in place for these schools along the border, these schools will fail," Mr. Plotkin said.

—Mary Ann Zehr

Vol. 22, Issue 24, Page 19

Published in Print: February 26, 2003, as Federal File

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