No Child Left Behind Act Changes Weighed

By Lynn Olson — September 22, 2004 6 min read
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Scholars and practitioners last week proposed mending the No Child Left Behind Act to better address the needs of students with disabilities and those learning English. The law’s accountability requirements pose unique challenges for such students and the schools that serve them, contributing to many schools’ identification as inadequate.

Papers from the AEI conference will be available online soon from the American Enterprise Institute, and papers from the CEP conference will be available from the Consciousness and Experimental Psychology website. CEP is a section of the British Psychological Society.

A central problem, said Margaret J. McLaughlin, a professor of education at the University of Maryland College Park, is what it means to “close the achievement gap” for students with disabilities, who, by definition, have problems learning.

"[T]o assume that this subgroup of students can or should learn the same content at the same levels within the same time frame as their nondisabled peers flies in the face of what we know about many of these students,” Ms. McLaughlin said at a Sept. 14 meeting sponsored by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy to explore fixes to the law.

In fact, said Joseph J. O’Brien, the superintendent of the 3,400-student Springfield, Pa., school district, the 2½-year-old law “directly conflicts” with federal special education law, which focuses on developing individualized education plans and goals for children with disabilities, based on their distinctive needs.

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Finding Room for Improvement

“Schools and teachers cannot treat everyone the same and treat everyone individually at the same time,” he said.

Nearly 400 of Pennsylvania’s 501 local superintendents have signed a position paper calling on federal leaders to change the law and provide more funding.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires that all students perform at the “proficient” level on state reading and mathematics tests in grades 3-8 and in high school by 2013-14. Schools must get an increasing proportion of their students over that bar between now and then, including subgroups of students who speak limited English or have disabilities.

One of the biggest concerns is that existing tests may not accurately measure the performance of such young people. While states offer changes in testing procedures, known as accommodations, for those students, how such changes influence test results is uncertain. Given the lack of solid research, said James Crawford, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, it should be up to local authorities—not federal officials—to decide when limited-English-proficient students are ready to take tests in English.

Others argue that the federal government should permit states to develop alternative assessments for students with moderate disabilities that measure their progress toward meeting grade-level academic-content standards. At present, such students must be tested on grade level for their scores to count as proficient in making adequate progress under the law.

Measuring Growth

Perhaps the biggest suggested shift would be to judge schools based on the growth individual students make from year to year, not just whether students meet absolute levels of performance.

Such “value added” analyses may be particularly important in looking at how effective schools are in educating students with disabilities or limited English, who typically start well behind their peers, presenters at the Center on Education Policy event said.

But Chester E. Finn Jr. and Frederick M. Hess suggested at a separate gathering that day that it’s a more sensible way of evaluating schools, in general, because it accounts for the influence of children’s backgrounds and prior attainment on their learning.

“Today’s NCLB is hostile to value-added analysis. That should change,” Mr. Hess said at that meeting, sponsored by the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, where he directs education policy studies. He and Mr. Finn, the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, lay out their proposals for amending the law in the fall edition of The Public Interest.

The act now requires states to judge schools based on “cohort” analyses that compare the performance of this year’s 4th graders, for instance, with that of last year’s 4th graders, even though the two groups of students may be quite different. That’s a particular concern when it comes to the special education and lep subgroups, which tend to be both very diverse and highly mobile.

Moreover, once lep students are fluent in English, they move out of the subgroup entirely, making it difficult for schools to ever get 100 percent of that subgroup to the proficient level on state tests. Although federal officials have permitted states to count students in the lep subgroup for up to two years after they have been designated as fluent in English, many participants at the CEP meeting described that as a temporary fix.

Under the law, states can determine how many students must be in a subgroup to count those results for either reporting or accountability purposes. Some states have set such a high threshold that many schools are not even reporting results for their special education or lep subgroups, people at the CEP event said.

In general, critics at last week’s meetings worried about the wide variety in standards, tests, and accountability plans across the 50 states—including large differences in what it means to be “proficient.”

“NCLB is too prescriptive about means and too hands-off about ends,” said Mr. Hess, who wants stricter guidance about the essential knowledge and skills that students must master.

Uniform Ends

He and Mr. Finn proposed using the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a benchmark to set clear and uniform expectations for student performance in reading and math in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. States could then craft their own standards and tests in other subjects and decide how to include those in their accountability systems.

Their paper also suggests changing some of the law’s requirements regarding the provision of public school choice and free tutoring to students in schools identified as needing improvement. In particular, they argue, more attention should be paid to increasing the supply of potential alternatives to which students could transfer, including charter schools, schools in neighboring districts, cyber schools, home schools, and even private schools.

They also suggest that the law’s sanctions should be reversed, so that students receive free tutoring before the chance to switch to another school.

Whether any of the proposed changes will materialize before the law is reauthorized in 2007 remains to be seen.

Michael J. Petrilli, an associate assistant deputy secretary in the Department of Education’s office of innovation and improvement, said Secretary of Education Rod Paige already has the authority to strengthen the law through regulations. Rather than alter it, Mr. Petrilli said, “what I want to suggest is another option, and that is extend it,” referring to President Bush’s proposals to require more testing and accountability for high schools. (“Bush Test Proposal for High Schoolers Joins Wider Trend,” Sept. 15, 2004.)

“I think we should let the law run its course,” Ross Weiner, the director of policy for the Washington-based Education Trust, said at the aei meeting. Although changes will be needed, he said, it’s too early to tell what those will be. Proposals to amend the law are already circulating on Capitol Hill, including a bill introduced by Senate Democrats last week. (“Kennedy Bill Would Give States, Districts Leeway,” this issue.)


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