School & District Management

Questions Linger Over NCLB Policy Shifts

By Michelle R. Davis & David J. Hoff — April 19, 2005 6 min read
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Now that Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has promised states more flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act, state officials are trying to unravel what that means.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings speaks about No Child Left Behind Act flexibility to state officials and others at Mount Vernon on April 7.

Her April 7 announcement that there will be new rules on testing students with disabilities and adjustments to how states can measure overall student achievement was big news in state capitals, where rumbles of rebellion have been growing louder. (“States to Get New Options on NCLB Law,” April 13, 2005.)

In particular, state officials are seeking details regarding Ms. Spellings’ declaration that she’d be willing to consider a “growth” model to reward schools when students make significant progress, even if they don’t reach grade-level proficiency as currently required by the No Child Left Behind law.

“It’s a big announcement, but there’s no meat on the bones,” said David L. Shreve, a lobbyist for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. “When they talk abut doing this growth model, it’s kind of like saying the check’s in the mail.”

In her speech at Mount Vernon, Va., announcing the Department of Education’s more flexible stance, Ms. Spellings told state education leaders and others that she’s putting together a panel to study growth models, but gave few details on when states could expect to have such plans approved.

“When [people] say that word [growth], they mean literally hundreds of different things,” said Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Washington-based Education Trust, a staunch supporter of the law. “But they think they all mean the same thing.”

Some states already have a scaled down version of a growth model in place. However, an adviser to Ms. Spellings said the department is willing to go further.

In its No Child Left Behind accountability plan, Massachusetts creates a composite score for each school. A school can improve its score by moving students out of the lowest achievement levels and into higher ones. The state’s system rewards schools even if they don’t dramatically increase the number of students in the proficient category.

“People want to go a bit further and say, ‘How do we track individual student growth?’ ” Kerri L. Briggs, a senior adviser to Ms. Spellings, said last week.

Ms. Spellings’ plan to change some rules for the No Child Left Behind Act is a response to criticisms that the law is too rigid and interferes with state policies already in place.

In her Mount Vernon speech, Ms. Spellings said the department would recruit a panel of experts from inside and outside the department to study the issue.

The panel will look at the ingredients that such a system needs to be in compliance with the No Child Behind Act, Ms. Briggs added. Ms. Briggs did not give a timetable for its work.

Political Minefields

It’s not the first time that the idea of softening the department’s rules has been debated internally, a former top Education Department official said.

Eugene W. Hickok, the former deputy secretary of education, said that he lobbied early in his tenure at the agency for more flexible special education testing. “We felt that states would need it,” he said in an interview last week. “The White House shot it down.”

He added, “We would come up with some ideas for flexibility that often didn’t get the support they needed.”

Some states have clamored to incorporate a growth model into their annual assessments.

For months, Utah officials have asked the Department of Education to let them use their state assessment system to evaluate students. That system relies, in part, on a growth model that tracks the same students’ progress over a year. By contrast, the current federal law compares this year’s 3rd grade reading scores with last year’s 3rd grade reading scores.

The Utah Senate was set to consider this week whether to pass a House-approved bill giving Utah education laws precedence over the federal law. The ruckus in the heavily Republican state has become a political hot potato for the Bush administration. (“Utah Legislators Delay Action on NCLB Bill,” March 9, 2005.)

Skirmishes are erupting elsewhere, too. Connecticut’s attorney general has said he plans to sue the federal Education Department over NCLB testing mandates. (“Connecticut Pledges First State Legal Challenge to NCLB Law,” April 13, 2005.)

And Texas granted a slew of waivers to schools and districts, defying No Child Left Behind mandates on testing special education students.

In this climate, Ms. Spellings must tread carefully, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. Already, she has shown signs of favoring Republicans over Democrats, he maintained.

What’s more, Ms. Spellings has been quoted as suggesting she’s ready to work out a compromise with the GOP legislators in Utah: “These are Republicans,” she told The New York Times in February. “These are our people.”

Mr. Jennings, who worked as a top education aide to House Democrats for almost 30 years, said: “If Spellings makes this a partisan situation, they’re going to lose [bipartisan] support.”

But Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced late last week that Connecticut Commissioner of Education Betty J. Sternberg was scheduled to meet with the secretary on April 18—a meeting Ms. Sternberg has been seeking since January.

Prior to that announcement, Ms. Sternberg had written a letter stating that Secretary Spellings unfairly criticized her and other state officials in an April 7 interview on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS.

On the program, Ms. Spellings said Connecticut refuses to offer standardized tests in grades 3, 5, and 7—something that violates one of the core principles of the federal law, which requires annual reading and math tests in grades 3-8. Commissioner Sternberg said the state was prepared to conduct the testing in the additional grades, but would prefer not to.

She also demanded an apology from Ms. Spellings for questioning her commitment to minority students. “It is simply outrageous that you would accuse me and my associates of ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations,’ ” she wrote.

Sandy Kress, a former education adviser to President Bush, defended Ms. Spellings, noting that she is working with many states, and predicting that as those relationships solidify, complaints without merit will be viewed with skepticism.

“The public and Congress will be able to differentiate from those that have legitimate implementation issues from those states that are basically saying, ‘We just don’t want to follow the law,’ ” he said.

Special Education Changes

Special education advocates also have lingering questions.

Currently, states can use alternative assessments based on alternative achievement standards for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. States may continue to include proficient scores from those assessments in making adequate-yearly-progress determinations for schools and districts, but those scores can represent no more than 1 percent of all students tested in the district.

Now, following the secretary’s April 7 announcement, the Education Department says that states may develop modified achievement standards for students with “persistent academic difficulties.”

The scores that can be counted as proficient from those tests will be capped at 2 percent of the total tested population. The department hopes the rules will be in place by the 2005-06 school year.

Still, some advocates said a meeting with federal officials the day before the announcement was of little help.

“We left that meeting with more questions than answers, which tells us they don’t know the answers,” said Paul Marchand, the staff director and lobbyist for The Arc and the United Cerebral Palsy Disability Policy Collaboration, advocacy groups that are based in Washington.

He said Education Department officials indicated the new 2 percent rule would be put in place for the 2005-06 school year. But he added that it seemed unlikely that the department could produce technical assistance for the states under that tight time frame.

“It seems to be a tremendous stretch to say they would be able to launch this in any kind of common-sense way,” Mr. Marchand said.

Staff Writer Christina A. Samuels contributed to this report.

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