Anniversary Brings Fresh Scrutiny Of Federal School Law

January 07, 2004 3 min read
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With the two-year anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act at hand, the comprehensive federal school improvement law is being analyzed intensely in academic and policy circles.

“Penalizing Diverse Schools?” is available from the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Harvard University researchers Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West, in examining the likely long-term impact of the law, predicted that states would be pressured to water down their accountability measures as more and more schools failed to meet high standards.

“Accountability systems tend to soften over time,” Mr. Peterson, also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said at a Dec. 11 briefing here. “They get legislated like lions and implemented like lambs.”

But the two researchers suggest that even less rigorous accountability systems can produce positive results. Their findings are based on research and analysis of accountability efforts presented in No Child Left Behind? The Politics and Practice of Accountability, a new book they edited for the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

The editors say the law—signed by President Bush on Jan. 8, 2002—would be more effective if it included provisions for holding individual students accountable for their own performance.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige said that while federal officials are trying to provide some flexibility as they work with states on implementing the law, “we are going to hold the line against softer accountability.”

“We will enable success, and then we will require compliance,” he said at the Brookings briefing.

A new California study suggests that the more diverse a school’s enrollment, the more likely that school will fall short of improvement targets required by the federal law.

That’s the basic finding from “Penalizing Diverse Schools?” a study released by Policy Analysis for California Education, a think tank based at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Looking at student-testing results for California’s 7,669 K-12 schools, the researchers found that urban and suburban schools serving more than one student subgroup faced higher odds of missing state performance goals under the federal law than schools with more homogeneous enrollments.

To pass muster, schools must test 95 percent of students in each subgroup—including, for example, students with disabilities, poor students, students from various racial and ethnic groups, and students with limited English skills—and show that they are making improvement.

Shining a Light

Meanwhile, Washington Partners LLC, a government-affairs and public-policy firm here, hosted a daylong conference Dec. 15 to examine the act’s core mandate that all schools make “adequate yearly progress” toward academic proficiency for all children by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

“I don’t know what I can’t do yet, so I think this is all doable,” Henry L. Johnson, Mississippi’s state schools superintendent since August 2002, said when discussing the federal requirements. “The goals are worthwhile goals.”

Mr. Johnson said the law has helped shine “a light” on schools that persistently serve a specific group or groups of children poorly.

“I’m a very strong advocate for the No Child Left Behind legislation,” said Eric J. Smith, the superintendent of the 75,000-student Anne Arundel County school system in Maryland, also speaking at the event. He suggested that the biggest challenges may be not for large urban systems, but for suburban districts that now must work toward ensuring that all their students, including minority and poor children, meet high standards.

Eugene W. Hickok, the acting U.S. deputy secretary of education, later in the day at the Dec. 15 event addressed rising complaints that the law is unrealistic. If not all students, he asked, what percentage ought the United States expect to reach the goal of proficiency?

“I don’t see how we could have done it any other way,” he said of the blanket requirement.

“You know what? We might fall short,” Mr. Hickok added. “It is a pretty lofty aspiration, but you know, I guess I’d rather fall short of a lofty aspiration than start out with lower expectations. I hope that doesn’t sound too corny.”

Mr. Hickok reiterated the Department of Education’s stance that now is not the time to change the federal law, though he indicated that the federal agency would consider revising guidance and regulations if needed.

Associate editors Kathleen Kennedy Manzo and Debra Viadero contributed to this story.

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