Educators want No Child Left Behind Act revised

Monday, October 23, 2006

Nearly five years after President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, many educators believe the law needs a serious makeover.

The act has sparked criticism from school teachers, school administrators, education groups and even parents nationwide.

It will be a major legislative issue in 2007 when the law comes up for reauthorization.

President Bush has said he wants to strengthen the law, not soften it. "The law is working," he said in a speech earlier this month at a Washington, D.C., charter school.

"We must hold schools to account if we expect our children to be able to realize dreams. And if we want America to remain competitive, we must have high standards," the president said.

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, voted for the legislation. But now she questions if Congress acted too hastily.

"I often think we should have asked more questions," Emerson said. "We probably should have done a pilot program first to see how it would work."

The law mandates that every child in America be proficient in certain academic subjects by 2014.

Requiring 100 percent proficiency among all students, including special-education students, is unrealistic, Emerson and educators say.

Public dissatisfaction with the law is growing. According to a Gallup Poll, 58 percent of Americans believe the law has either harmed or done nothing to improve student achievement.

Nearly 70 percent of respondents said they didn't think a single test could provide a fair picture of whether a school needs improvement. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, student performance based on state assessment tests is a primary measure of a school's annual progress ratings.

Critics question a law that labels schools as failing even though the majority of students score at a proficient level on math and English exams. The law requires all racial, ethnic and special-needs subgroups of students at a school to meet proficiency standards for adequate yearly progress.

Greg Jung, a fifth-grade teacher in the Ritenour School District in the St. Louis area, serves as president of the Missouri chapter of the National Education Association. The MNEA supports the overall goals of the federal law to boost student achievement and make schools accountable for academic progress. But how that's achieved is the problem, he said.

"Unfortunately it makes a system where everything you do is focused on how well you do on one test day a year," he said.

As a result, schools are focusing on testing procedures rather than on all-around learning, Jung said.

The law has labeled some schools as failing because of low test scores. "You can't imagine what it does to the morale of students and teachers," Jung said.

The law, he said, also unfairly puts the burden solely on schools to improve student achievement. He said it also takes effort on the part of students and parents.

Jung compares the situation to saying that a city's high crime rate is the fault of the police department.

MNEA has 33,000 members in Missouri. The National Education Association has 3.2 million members nationwide.

"We all agree that it needs to be changed," Jung said of the law.

Locally, school officials said schools can't meet the 100 percent proficiency standard no matter how students are taught and what programs are implemented.

"That goal couldn't be achieved if you had a billion dollars," said Dr. Ron Anderson, Jackson schools superintendent. "It just can't happen."

The federal law focuses on math and reading skills. It ignores other subjects, he said.

"We have to be careful we don't completely dismiss the importance of other areas that aren't in the tests like art and music programs," he said.

Cape Girardeau public schools superintendent Dr. David Scala said the focus should be on charting academic progress of the individual students from year to year rather than focusing on student groups.

Two Cape Girardeau elementary schools, Blanchard and Jefferson, failed to make adequate yearly progress on standardized tests. Jefferson failed to meet goals in both communication arts and math. Blanchard's black students failed to meet the goal in communication arts.

Under federal law, parents of students in those two schools could request their children be transferred to other elementary schools in the district. But few parents took advantage of the opportunity, mirroring the experience of other school districts faced with a similar situation. Parents of only 11 students -- three from Blanchard and eight from Jefferson -- have requested transfers.

Cairo, Ill., schools superintendent Gary Whitledge said the law doesn't take into account the fact that students aren't all going to do well on a single test.

The focus, he said, should be on improving academic achievement for each individual student.

But Whitledge said he agrees with the overall goal of the law that schools should be held accountable for the education they deliver. "We shouldn't be any different than any other business," he said.

The NEA has criticized the one-size-fits-all accountability system of the federal education law. NEA president Reg Weaver has recommended Congress require the use of multiple measures and methods to assess student achievement, including teacher-designed classroom assessments, student portfolios, graduation and dropout rates, the percentage of students taking honors or advanced classes and college-enrollment rates.

The Missouri State Teachers Association also has voiced concerns about the reliance on standardized tests.

Todd Fuller, a spokesman for the MSTA in Columbia, Mo., said he understands why the federal law focused on such test scores. "It is easier to have a hard-and-fast test score that everybody can look at and say, 'This is how well my student is doing.'"

But he said the law fails to take into account other measurements of learning.

"It is a one-shot test of how a child was doing on that day, in that week, in that month. But," Fuller said, "it is not an overall big picture of how well that child is doing in the classroom."

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123


TIMELINE OF THE NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND ACT

* January 2002: President Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law.

* September 2003: A school district in Vermont decided not to apply for federal Title I money for secondary grades to avoid expensive measures for a high school that didn't make adequate yearly progress. Two other districts follow suit, along with three in Connecticut.

* Fall 2003: Thirty-one percent of the nation's schools fail to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) based on test scores.

* December 2003: The U.S. Department of Education makes the first of several rule changes to make it easier for schools to meet adequate-yearly-progress requirements.

* Spring 2004: California Department of Education study predicts 99 percent of schools in that state will fail AYP by 2014.

* School Year 2004-2005: States are required to raise standards for AYP.

* Fall 2004: Twenty-four percent of American schools fail to make AYP.

* February 2005: Texas becomes the first state to defy the federal rule requiring special-education students to meet the same standards on the test as students with no disabilities.

* April 2005: NEA and nine school districts file a lawsuit to stop federal authorities from forcing districts to spend their own money on NCLB requirements.

* May 2005: Utah orders school officials to ignore NCLB when it conflicts with the state's school accountability system.

* June 2005: Two Illinois school districts pass up Title I funding rather than submit to NCLB sanctions.

* November 2005: A judge rejects NEA's lawsuit, The NEA announces it will appeal.

* September 2007: The No Child Left Behind Act will expire unless Congress reauthorizes it.

* June 2014: Under the current law, every student in the nation is supposed to be proficient in certain academic subjects by this date.

Source: National Education Association

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