Defending 'No Child Left Behind'

"Dear Parents, Welcome back to Year 3 of the No Child Left Behind Act. Polls show many of you gravely concerned about the federal law requiring standardized tests in public schools. We - the teachers, administrators, and states unhappy with the act - sympathize. We also think the feds are shortchanging us. We're so mad, we're suing."

This note won't be coming back to parents in children's backpacks, but it sums up prevailing and growing discontent with the NCLB act. The groundbreaking, bipartisan reform aims to hold schools accountable for closing the student achievement gap. After a bipartisan study, however, the National Conference of State Legislatures finds it so flawed, it lists 43 ways to fix it.

A few issues have emerged as rallying cries among NCLB critics. To its credit, the Department of Education is holding firm when it needs to, but is also being flexible:

Money. Connecticut became the first state last week to sue the federal government for not providing enough funds to implement the act. It says it needs $41.6 million more to comply. NCLB requires annual testing for Grades 3 through 8. Connecticut tests only every other year. The suit follows a similar one by the nation's largest teachers' union and several school districts.

It's hard to summon up much sympathy for the money complaint. The Government Accountability Office found in 2003 that Congress was providing enough dollars for state testing. Also, NCLB compliance is voluntary.

Yes, opting out means forfeiting federal money for educating disadvantaged children. For some poor states, that's not really a choice. But many states are in better fiscal shape these days. If Connecticut, expecting a budget surplus this year, is convinced its testing method is best, it can stick with it.

Special ed. To ensure schools are helping all kids learn - and not just covering up deficiencies by reporting test averages - NCLB has schools report reading and math results by student subgroup, including race and disability. But a majority (62 percent) of the public, and many educators, oppose having special-ed scores determine a school's overall performance. They say testing these children at the same grade as other kids sets a school up to fail.

The Department of Education is showing welcome flexibility, increasing the percent of students with disabilities allowed to take tests geared to their own ability. The complaint is the increase isn't enough, but the feds are wise to go slowly. Create a big enough exemption hole, and schools will stuff it with underperformers to improve scores. The department can always adjust again.

Teaching to the test. Critics often object that NCLB invites teaching only to the test. But parents can counter this, by pressuring schools to broaden out.

Schools must measure student performance to identify and fix problems. That's what NCLB is all about. As for what's not working in the act, keep the feedback coming as the feds seem to have a listening ear. Longer term, there's 2007, when the act comes up for renewal. •

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