Federal

GAO: States Struggling to Meet School Law

By David J. Hoff — October 12, 2004 3 min read
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States are falling behind in efforts to carry out the main K-12 law championed by President Bush, and the Department of Education isn’t doing enough to help them catch up, according a report from Congress’ watchdog agency.

Read the full report, “No Child Left Behind Act: Improvements Needed in Education’s Process for Tracking States’ Implementation of Key Revisions,” online from the Government Accountability Office. Or view the highlights of the report. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The department hasn’t given final approval to the No Child Left Behind Act accountability plans of 23 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Government Accountability Office.

“Although Education [Department] officials said that they have been in frequent communication with these states,” the Sept. 30 GAO report says, “the department does not have written procedures and specified time frames for monitoring states’ progress for these 24 plans still needing to meet conditions.”

In response, department officials said that their approach is adequate and that the GAO’s suggestions might slow down the process of approving plans.

“The point of the law is every child learning, not adding needless bureaucratic red tape,” department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said in an e-mail.

“We’ve gotten tangible results for students, and it’s only been two years,” she added. “And much of it is because of states’ efforts to develop fair, reliable, and valid plans to get progress for every single child.”

For their part, state officials say they are comfortable with the current situation. It allows each state to negotiate questions with the department in an ongoing way, based on the state’s own needs, said Patricia F. Sullivan, the deputy director for advocacy and strategic alliances for the Council of Chief State School Officers, based in Washington.

“That’s 100 percent essential,” she said. “You have to look at each state differently because their systems are so different.”

In June 2003, President Bush announced that the Education Department had approved the plans of all states and territories for complying with the testing and accountability requirements of the federal school law.

The GAO notes in its report that the department had given final approval, however, to just 11 states. The rest had been approved with con ditions. (“‘Approved’ Is Relative Term for Ed. Dept.,” Aug. 6, 2003.)

By July 31 of this year, the department had approved 27 states, according to the GAO, which was formerly known as the General Accounting Office.

A leading Democratic supporter of the law, which Mr. Bush signed in January 2002, agreed that the department needs to issue written directions explaining what states need to do to earn the final nod.

“The Department of Education should do everything possible to assist states in meeting their deadlines and get the job done,” Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement.

But department officials say states are making progress fast enough under the current method.

Eugene W. Hickok

Even though many operated with conditional approval, every state was far enough along to determine whether schools made adequate yearly progress in the 2002-03 school year, according to Eugene W. Hickok, the deputy secretary of education.

“That, to me, demonstrates that our approval system works and negates the need” for written directions explaining how comply with the law, Mr. Hickok wrote in a response appended to the GAO report.

Performance Data

The GAO also found that states are struggling to collect the student-performance figures and other data required under the No Child Left Behind Act.

More than half the state and district officials whom GAO researchers interviewed suggested that the poor quality of data was a major obstacle in implementing the law, which holds schools accountable—with the threat of sanctions—for showing that their students are making what is deemed adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

For example, California officials told researchers that they couldn’t get reliable racial and ethnic data from every school district in the state. Such information is vital in determining whether every demographic group outlined in the law is achieving AYP goals.

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