Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is hinting at some new flexibility for states trying to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act when it comes to students with disabilities and limited English skills, and for making the calculations that determine whether schools and districts will face sanctions.
In a March 13 speech at the Council of the Great City Schools’ annual legislative conference in Washington, Ms. Spellings stressed there were some issues the Bush administration would not budge on, including the law’s requirement for annual testing in certain grades and the breaking down of data by race, socioeconomic status, and other subgroups.
But since becoming secretary in January, Ms. Spellings has settled long-standing disputes with some states over issues such as teacher-quality requirements and how to determine which school districts qualify as being in need of improvement.
At the conference last week, according to Jeff Simmering, the legislative director for the council, she told attendees that the Department of Education is eyeing ways to make the law less rigid and incorporate suggestions from states with concerns about the provisions on students with disabilities and those learning English.
“She clearly said they were looking at a variety of areas of flexibility,” said Mr. Simmering, whose Washington-based organization represents 65 of the country’s largest urban school districts. She also “made mention” of the idea of a value-added or growth model to help calculate adequate yearly progress under the law, he said.
One issue being considered by the department is the proportion of special education students who can be counted as proficient based on an alternative to their states’ main tests. Under the regulations for the No Child Left Behind law, the test scores of no more than 1 percent of students with significant cognitive disabilities who take alternative assessments count toward a district’s calculation of adequate yearly progress, or AYP. Any students above the cap who are not tested at the grade level in which they are enrolled are considered not proficient for accountability purposes.
Several states have said they would like to see that cap increased, because there are students who must be taught below their normal grade levels but can still show that they have made a year’s worth of educational progress.
John H. Hager, the assistant secretary for the Education Department’s office of special education and rehabilitative services, said that the cap is under study.
“Many states have registered their own version of why they think the system needs altering,” he said in an interview.
Among the states that have asked for waivers is Virginia, which is requesting that the department do away with any cap.
“These are common-sense adjustments in light of the practical experience gained in three years of implementing No Child Left Behind,” said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia education department.
Texas recently granted appeals to more than 400 school districts that the state now considers to be making AYP even though they did not follow the federal Education Department’s testing standards for students with disabilities. (“Texas Stands Behind Own Testing Rule,” Mar. 9, 2005.)
Katherine Beh Neas, the director of congressional affairs for the Chicago-based Easter Seals, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, said her organization would be disappointed at any increase in the 1 percent cap.
“We’ve seen a lot of really good things happen because of that,” Ms. Neas said.
The Education Department may also be considering giving states more time for some students with limited English skills to meet proficiency requirements. Any such leeway may apply in particular to students who do not speak English at all and have had little formal schooling, said Scott Palmer, a Washington lawyer who works with states on education policy. (“Federal Data Show Gains On Language,” Mar. 23, 2005.)
Districts are also looking for different ways to calculate AYP. Some want the Bush administration to allow them to incorporate value-added models into those calculations. For example, as AYP is calculated now, one school year’s 4th grade reading scores in a district are compared with the next year’s 4th grade scores. The value-added model tracks the same students to see how successful schools are at raising their achievement over the course of a year.
David Shreve, an education lobbyist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said a student may come into 6th grade on a 3rd grade reading level and make a leap of two grade levels that year.
“AYP doesn’t account for that growth, but a value-added plan does,” he said.