Federal

Secretary to Weigh NCLB Waivers for Crisis on a Case-by-Case Basis

By Lynn Olson — September 13, 2005 3 min read
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Besides scrambling to find teachers, textbooks, and classroom space for the estimated 300,000-plus students displaced by Hurricane Katrina, schools taking in the evacuees are waiting to see whether they’ll have to bring them up to the proficient level on state tests in order to make adequate yearly progress under federal law.

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, has asked U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and members of Congress to waive accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act for schools hit by the hurricane as well as those taking in large numbers of new students. But in an interview aired on National Public Radio on Sept. 4, the secretary said she was not inclined to suspend the AYP rules.

“We don’t want to write off the school year academically for these kids and shouldn’t, at least not yet,” Ms. Spellings said during the interview.

In a subsequent, online forum hosted by the White House on Sept. 6, the secretary appeared to moderate that stance.

“We will be working closely with state and local officials in the coming days to discuss the implications for No Child Left Behind state testing and accountability requirements and, on a case-by-case basis, we will be flexible with certain provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act as they emerge,” she said.

And in a Sept. 7 conference call with reporters, Ms. Spellings re-emphasized that she would look at requests on an individual basis.

“One of the things that the community is asking for is this broad-blanket, nationwide sort of waiver approach, which does not seem to be in order at the moment,” she said.

The nearly 4-year-old federal law requires states to calculate whether schools and districts are making adequate progress based on the test scores of students enrolled for a “full academic year.” Schools and districts receiving federal Title I money for disadvantaged children that fail to meet their targets are subject to a range of increasingly stiff consequences.

One concern is that if Secretary Spellings does not provide some reprieve from the AYP requirements, schools could have a disincentive to enroll students displaced by the hurricane in a timely fashion and to keep them enrolled on a continuous basis.

In Texas, which was expecting to enroll as many as 70,000 evacuees, AYP calculations are based on the performance of students enrolled on the “fall-enrollment-snapshot date,” typically the last Friday in October. In both Louisiana and Mississippi, the two states most severely affected by Hurricane Katrina, students must be continuously enrolled in school from Oct. 1 to the date of state testing.

Concern Down the Road

By early last week, more than 300 displaced students had shown up in the 44,600-student Alief Independent School District, on the far southwest side of the Houston metropolitan area.

“We’re going to enroll them regardless [of the AYP implications]. These children have nowhere else to go, and Houston is absolutely full of evacuees,” said Sarah B. Winkler, the president of the Alief school board.

But she added that it would be unfair to hold the schools or their new students accountable for performance on Texas tests that cover material not taught in the children’s home state of Louisiana.

“If we get 1,000 students, how is that fair to us to count that against us for adequate yearly progress?” she said.

Other school officials said they would cope with federal accountability requirements later, but for now they have more immediate concerns.

“We have no homes, we have no schools for them to go to,” said Sue Matheson, the superintendent of the 2,000-student Pass Christian school system on Mississippi’s ravaged Gulf Coast. “Certainly, the priority right now is not on test scores.”

Charity O. Smith, the director of accountability for the state education department in Arkansas, a destination for many evacuees, said that her state’s schools “are going to take in the students regardless of AYP impact. They’re simply going to do that.” But, from a practical point of view, she cautioned, people are going to become concerned about such issues down the road.

“I just left a disaster-relief center, and I visited with a number of the youngsters and their parents,” Ms. Smith said. “Many of the youngsters are not ready for school emotionally. That kind of assessment is going to be individual, student by student, getting them ready, because they’ve been traumatized.”

Staff Writers Michelle R. Davis and Alan Richard contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2005 edition of Education Week as Secretary to Weigh NCLB Waivers for Crisis on a Case-by-Case Basis

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