Education Department Announces More Flexible Approach to NCLB Law

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U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced April 7 that she will entertain “common sense” changes to implementing the No Child Left Behind Act so long as states can guarantee her they are producing higher student achievement and following the law’s basic tenets.

She also pledges to convene a panel of experts to determine how, under current law, states could count schools and districts as making adequate yearly progress if they meet growth targets. Now, all schools and districts in a state have to reach the same levels of student proficiency.

In addition, Ms. Spellings said the department would approve individual states’ proposals for changes if the states can prove they are improving student achievement. The department would consider student test scores, high school graduation rates, and a state’s success in reaching students with disabilities and other groups whose achievement ranks below average on state assessments.

“It is the results that truly matter, not the bureaucratic way that you get there,” Ms. Spellings said in the speech at George Washington’s Estates & Gardens historic site in Mount Vernon, Va. “That’s just common sense, sometimes lost in the halls of the government.”

The special education rules will be in effect soon—possibly in the 2005-06 school year. Ms. Spellings said the department would formally propose the regulation this spring.

Under the proposal, states could identify students with “persistent academic disabilities” and create separate standards for them to meet and modified assessments for them to take. The rule would allow 2 percent of a school’s or district’s enrollment to be tested against the new standards and counted as proficient for accountability purposes.

The new rule would be in addition to an existing regulation governing students with severe cognitive disabilities. That rule says that 1 percent of a school’s or district’s enrollment may be tested against standards other than those of their own grade level and still be considered proficient for accountability purposes.

While Ms. Spellings offered new flexibility, she said there were certain rules in the statute that she has no desire or power to change. States will still be required to test students annually from grade 3 through 8 and once in high school and report student scores by demographic subgroups, for example.

States also will need to improve the quality of their teachers and make data on school performance available to parents, she added.

Other than the special education rules and the possibility of setting growth targets, Ms. Spellings did not offer specific examples of the types of rules the department would be willing to waive.

After the speech, the department’s top K-12 official said that the department is willing to consider any changes that aren’t specifically mandated in the 3-year-old law. By the end of the month, the department will tell states the procedures they’ll need to follow to receive the department’s approval for such flexibility, said Raymond J. Simon, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

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