States Threaten To Defy No Child Left Behind

June 28, 2011

Larry Abramson

A rebellion over No Child Left Behind has begun. The starting point: Idaho.

Many states that say they need emergency relief from the controversial education law's requirements — otherwise, they say, a huge number of decent schools will face sanctions. Idaho says it will just ignore the law this year.

Under No Child Left Behind, Idaho is supposed to identify a growing number of schools as failing because they can't get enough students to pass a state test.

Idaho schools superintendent Tom Luna says he just won't do it.

"We're not gonna identify more schools as 'needs improvement' because that is not the correct way to identify them," Luna says.

Every year, the law's targets keep rising, Luna says. Many schools that have made great strides in improving achievement still fall below that bar as it floats upward. Congress was expected to make adjustments, to give schools credit for their progress. But Luna says that in Washington, the law has become a political football in a gridlocked Congress, "and we're not gonna be a pawn in those games."

Now technically, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could punish Idaho if the state refuses to obey the law. But Duncan may have encouraged this reaction by announcing recently he would grant waivers to states that could not meet the law's standards. Duncan said he had no choice since Congress has failed to renew the law.

What Duncan probably had in mind was the reaction from Kentucky: Rather than rebelling, state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday is respectfully asking Secretary Duncan to cut him some slack. But he's proposing to give something in return.

In exchange for permission to break some of the law's requirements, Holliday says he's ready to add some new elements to his state's plan for evaluating students. "We're adding two components: growth over time, down to the student level; and college and career readiness, both of those were a focus of the president's and the secretary's blueprint," Holliday says. In other words, students will be judged by whether their test scores are steadily improving and whether they are ready for college or a job.

As Holliday notes, those are measures that have a seal of approval from the administration already, so it should improve Kentucky's chances of getting a waiver. Without the waiver, Holliday says 85 percent of the state's school districts will be labeled as in need of improvement.

Now, not everyone thinks that the law should be changed because schools can't meet the law's standards.

Sandy Kress, who helped push No Child Left Behind through Congress during the Bush administration, says he is worried that these efforts will cover up education failures. Kress, who's now with a Texas law firm, says a key tenet of the law is that schools cannot ignore performance among low income kids, minority students and the disabled.

"That is to say that no school is let off the hook, if those students are falling by the wayside. Why should we compromise on that?" Kress says.

And that's the question some are asking — whether the latest controversy about No Child Left Behind is part of a genuine effort to spur needed reforms or whether it's really an admission that higher standards really are out of reach for some students.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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