Friday, April 08, 2005

The Spellings Report: Changes Announced To NCLB

In response to a growing amount of criticism by several states over the continued implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings (bios: here, and there) has announced some changes in the administration of NCLB. In a nutshell, the changes apply to the assessment of students with certain learning disabilities.

From a press release at the Department of Education website:

"This is a comprehensive approach to the implementation of this law," Secretary Spellings said. "States seeking additional flexibility will get credit for the work they have done to reform their education systems as a whole.

"States that understand this new way of doing things will be gratified. It makes sense, plain and simple. Others looking for excuses to simply take the federal funds, ignore the intent of the law and have minimal results to show for their millions upon millions in federal funds will think otherwise and be disappointed."

Secretary Spellings announced that the first example of this "workable, sensible approach" would be to apply the latest scientific research and allow states to use modified assessments for their students with persistent academic disabilities who need more time and instruction to make substantial progress toward grade-level achievement. These scores will be limited to 2 percent of all students for accountability purposes; this is a separate policy from the current regulation that allows up to 1 percent of all students being tested (those with the most significant cognitive disabilities) to take an alternate assessment.

"This new approach recognizes that these children should not all be treated alike. By relying on the most current and accurate information on how children learn and how to best serve their academic needs, this new policy focuses on children. They continue to be included in the accountability system because we know that otherwise, they risk being ignored, as was often the case before No Child Left Behind."

The New York Times offers this take on the changes:

It was unclear whether Ms. Spellings's proposals went far enough to assuage state officials' concerns, though several state superintendents expressed approval, as did both national teachers unions and several members of Congress.

But Connecticut officials, who announced earlier this week that they would sue the federal government for forcing the state to conduct more testing without providing the money to pay for it, were not impressed.

"This supposed initiative offers less than meets the eye," said Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general. "Nothing in all of today's verbiage corrects the key legal lapse: by the law's clear terms, no mandate means no mandate, if it's unfunded. Our determination to sue continues."

Ms. Spellings announced specific concessions in only one area, concerning how learning-disabled students must be tested.

Until now, the administration has allowed only 1 percent of all students, those most severely handicapped, to be given special tests; all other disabled students have been required to take the test administered to regular students. Dozens of state officials have called that policy unfair and unrealistic. On Thursday, Ms. Spellings said states would be allowed to administer alternative tests to an additional 2 percent of students.

Ms. Spellings also said the Department of Education could give some states additional flexibility, but she said they must first prove that they deserve it.

The states that may be eligible, she said, must have generally sound educational policies in place, demonstrate that student achievement is rising and follow the "basic principles of the law," which she listed as administering standardized tests every year in Grades 3 through 8, reporting test results by ethnic groups and others to make sure that all students are advancing, and working to improve teacher training and parent participation.

The Chicago Sun-Times had this to say:

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings came into her job promising to deal with horror stories from states about the No Child Left Behind law. Now state leaders say she appears to be delivering on the promise -- with a catch.

Spellings pledged Thursday to take a more sensible approach to enforcing the law, starting with allowing many more children with disabilities to be held to different academic standards. The flexibility isn't open to all states, only to those that prove they are committed to President Bush's education law, mainly by raising test scores.

"States that understand this new way of doing things will be gratified,'' Spellings told state school chiefs and other education leaders invited to hear her announcement.

''It makes sense, plain and simple,'' she said. ''Others looking for loopholes to simply take the federal funds, ignore the intent of the law and have minimal results to show for their millions of dollars in federal funds will think otherwise and be disappointed.''
She will favor states that don't challenge principal points of the law -- yearly testing of students in reading and math in grades three to eight, and public reporting of scores for all major groups of students.

State leaders contend the law sets unreasonable and rigid standards for many children. Connecticut plans to file a federal suit over the law, Utah is poised to pass a bill giving priority to its own education goals, and other states are clamoring for change.

Some education advocates are worried that Secretary Spellings's offer of "new flexibility" toward some states but not to others will lead to favoritism.

"That could make the law even more subject to political manipulation than it already is," said Monty Neill, co-executive director of FairTest, a group that opposes heavy reliance on standardized testing.

Spellings invited all 50 state superintendents of education to appear, but only 15 took her up on the offer.

As a classroom teacher who teaches in California, it is my opinion that these minor changes to NCLB will have little or no impact on most teachers' classrooms.

However, teachers that serve students with severe learning disabilities may feel relieved that their students' progress may now be measured with assessment instruments that are designed for their students' special needs.

Other Voices:, Joanne Jacobs, Education Gadfly
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