The U.S. Department of Education is seeking to debunk widely circulated e-mails that erroneously say the No Child Left Behind Act mandates that students who fail their 10th grade reading and math tests must accept an inferior high school completion certificate that would prohibit them from attending college or vocational school.
“These e-mails are inaccurate, could lead to misunderstanding, and need to be corrected,” Chad Colby, a spokesman for the Education Department, said in a public statement released May 24.
The e-mails, which appear to have been circulating for about a month, urge parents to spread the word about a provision “slipped in” by President Bush during a supposed 2004 revision to the federal law. The e-mails say that students who do not pass their states’ 10th grade tests in language arts and mathematics must either drop out of school and seek a General Educational Development credential or accept a “certification of completion.”
The No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush signed into law in January 2002, has not been amended at all, Mr. Colby pointed out. It is slated for reauthorization next year. And each state, not the federal government, sets its own requirements for graduation, Mr. Colby said. He noted that the No Child Left Behind law does require that states calculate a graduation rate based on their regular high school diplomas awarded, a calculation that excludes the GED or certificates of completion.
The e-mails incorrectly describe such certificates as barring students from going into the U.S. armed forces, attending college or trade school, or receiving a federal loan for “as long as they live.”
At least one version of the message refers to that supposed system of credentialing as “the paper plantation”—an apparent comparison to a slave plantation—and urges recipients to share the information with “everyone you know who has school-age children.”
Indiana, whose test is specifically mentioned in multiple versions of the e-mail, does issue certificates of completion, said Jason K. Bearce, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. But those certificates are used for students in special education and do not bar them from later seeking a GED credential or other diploma, applying for federal student loans, or joining the military, Mr. Bearce said. He said his agency has fielded a handful of calls seeking clarification on the e-mails.
Mr. Colby said the U.S. Education Department has received similar calls, but he could not estimate how many.
Versions of the e-mail also say that a high school in Indiana, identified in at least one of the messages as William A. Wirt Senior High School in Gary, issued only five diplomas last year and 82 “certificates of completion.” Mr. Bearce of the Indiana education department said that the maximum number of such certificates awarded for a single high school in the state last year was 29, for a school with 385 graduates.
Varying versions of the message have turned up on numerous Web sites and Internet forums, including at least one site that seeks to dispel so-called urban legends, http://urbanlegends.about.com. The erroneous education e-mail was posted on that site alongside tales of giant grizzly bears and camel spiders.
David Emery, a writer for the urban-legends site who investigated the e-mail, said he received some 50 messages alerting him to the e-mails during the first two weeks of May.
“Apart from the obvious factors, such as the fact that these allegations, if true, could severely impact our children’s chances of future success, I would attribute the virulence of this rumor to its conspiratorial undertone,” Mr. Emery said. “Nothing stokes the rumor mill like a good conspiracy theory.”
Mr. Emery noted that at least one Web site on which the message appears, a posting dated April 19 on a personal page on the popular MySpace.com social-networking site, attributes it to S. Leonard Brown, who until recently served as the principal of the 21st Century Charter School in Gary, Ind.
Dana Johnson, the general counsel for the Indianapolis-based Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, which sponsors the charter school, said her organization has received numerous calls in recent weeks, asking whether Mr. Brown was the author of the original e-mail. Mr. Brown resigned in early May, according to Ms. Johnson, but she would not disclose the reason, saying it was a personnel matter. Ms. Johnson said she has been correcting callers who ask about the validity of the e-mails’ message. “It’s been my goal, to set the record straight,” she said.
Education Week e-mailed Mr. Brown at an address included in an Indiana charter school directory. Michele E. Posey, who identified herself as an associate of his, responded May 25 to that e-mail with one saying that Mr. Brown was “unable to comment at this time.”
Monty Neill, the executive director of the National Center for Fair & Opening Testing, or FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based watchdog group that is critical of standardized testing, said the fact that so many people were willing to accept the e-mails as accurate points up the “punitive” nature of the No Child Left Behind law as written and implemented.
“NCLB is both harmful and intrusive,” he said. “People find it very easy to believe that something like this could be in the law.”
Yvette Willis, the president of the Parent Teacher Student Association for Crossland High School in the 136,000-student Prince George’s County, Md., school district, said she was “alarmed” when she first saw one of the e-mails. She forwarded it to some of the parents in her group.
“I thought, oh my goodness … what next?” she said. But others who received or heard about the message quickly dismissed it as inaccurate.
“The whole thing looked kind of flaky to me,” said Beth Cady, the public-information associate for the International Reading Association, based in Newark, Del.