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22nd April

First Published in The New York Sun, April 22, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

The No Child Left Behind Law is under fire, seemingly from sea to shining sea, red state and blue. How did this initiative, which started out with so much bipartisan promise, become so contentious?

There is an underlying problem with education in America. Atypically in the developed world, we have allowed education to be administered as a purely local endeavor. Consequently,the standards under which we teach our children and evaluate those efforts differ from state to state, and even within the states.

This is the kind of thing that is very popular on the right and the left, but ill serves the nation’s interests as a whole. People are 100% transportable from state to state and beyond. The skills they take with them must also be transportable.
When the initial legislation passed, those on the left and right gave in and compromised on a number of key issues.

Now that era of good feelings has come to a crashing end. In conservative Utah, the Republican legislature passed a bill preventing compliance with the federal law, which could lead to a loss of three-quarters of that state’s $107-million federal education funding.They are smarting over the provisions of the law that forces the state to surrender a degree of their local control in exchange for these funds. The Republican governor, Jon Huntsman Jr., has said that he intends to sign the bill into law.This would be a remarkable political setback for the president.

Other states are also up in arms. Connecticut protests the annual testing provisions of NCLB, citing the costs as an unfunded mandate.This is remarkable, considering that the amount under dispute is something like $8 million, a tiny cost that a state as large and prosperous as Connecticut should surely be able to pay.
Eight school districts from across the country, including one in Texas, have taken what they perceive as the underfunding of the law to court, joined Wednesday by the largest teachers union, the National Education Association.

On the costs of the testing provisions, the administration should call their bluff. The federal government should pay the entire cost of testing — provided that uniform testing devices, provided by the federal government and created by the National Assessment Governing Board be used.

This week the Koret Task Force of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University recommended that the current state standards be calibrated with the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests currently administered. The NAEP test is now administered to a sampling of students to project an overall picture of how our children are doing academically.

I would take this a step further. Why not use this well-regarded national testing device for all students? Or are the states and districts afraid of poor results?

In order to quell the opposition to NCLB, the administration needs to quickly reform many of the onerous provisions of the law that have unnecessarily burdened the states and districts. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has begun to move in this direction.

You cannot label a school as “failing” when segments of the school population that have been identified because of learning difficulties, do not achieve goals set for the population at large. If a fourth-grade special education student has been diagnosed with a learning disability, and that student’s Individual Education Plan sets a goal of reading at a first-grade level, you cannot expect this child to take the same fourth-grade test as the general school population and pass. Nor should you label the entire school as “failing” when a small group of such students perform at the best levels that they are capable of. Secretary Spellings has already moved toward correcting this anomaly.

Similarly, there needs to be clarity in the identification of students recently arrived in this country who don’t speak English, and whether or not they should be tested.The shifting sands of identifying students who should be tested often have other implications. Earlier this year, the New York State Education Department altered the testing provisions for English Language Learners that will diminish the number of these students required to take the annual state-administered fourth- and eighth-grade English Language Arts tests. Typically, these students perform at low levels on these exams.

It is unclear how many students are now newly exempt, but the number in the city may well be many thousands, enough to produce small increases in the percentage of students at grade level, artificially inflating this year’s test scores. The public and the federal government use these results to evaluate the performance of our schools, and the school officials who run them. When the results of the tests are released, it is incumbent on the State Education Department to correct last year’s data to take into account the differences in the population taking the test.

If education officials hold press conferences to trumpet increased performance, we must ensure that these are real, not contrived increases, achieved not by better pedagogy, but by “cooking the books.” Maybe this segment of the public sector should be given some of the same attention that Attorney General Eliot Spitzer lavishes on the private sector.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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