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Federal Law Seems To Be Leaving More Children Behind

May 25, 2004

By William L. Bainbridge

General Equivalency Examination data indicate the federal No Child Left Behind law might, in effect, be leaving more children behind.

The law, designed to ensure that public-school students graduate with a quality education, mandates testing third- through eighth- graders in reading and math, and imposes sanctions against schools that donít demonstrate enough progress with low-performing students.

The law has many similarities to a plan developed in Texas when President Bush was governor and Rod Paige, now the presidentís embattled secretary of education, was a Houston school-board member who later was named the districtís superintendent.

Proliferation of the "Texas Education Model" in the form of No Child Left Behind appears now to be harmful to the very substance of public education. As I noted in a column last year, a complex mathematical game was developed in Texas to disguise the student- dropout rate in a manner that even the best actuary could not explain. According to state records, in school year 1998-99, 18,221 seventh graders were in the Houston school system. Two years later, 9,138 ninth graders were in the same system ó an attrition rate of 53 percent. Meanwhile, Paige as was reporting to the state a dropout rate of less than 2 percent.

Data now indicate a disturbingly similar pattern emerging at the national level, where one out of every seven teenagers is opting for a general Equivalency diploma rather than a traditional high-school education. Moreover, the number is rising dramatically. Evidence indicates that a growing number of students nationwide are enrolling in a GED plan that does not give them the enrichment of a high-school environment.

Created in the late 1940s to assist World War II veterans in earning high school graduate status, the GED was not intended to replace the experience of high school. Schoolchildren now represent nearly half of all GED earners, up a third from just a decade ago. Meanwhile, high-school graduation rates have declined.

While the GED program, which is a series of classes and tests covering basic skills, can be a useful option for high-school dropouts, it is no substitute for a secondary education. Students who transfer to GED programs usually are not on the school attendance rolls, and in many school systems, they are not counted as dropouts.

It is true some young people cannot seem to adjust to behavior norms and study habits needed in traditional high schools, but the GED should not be an answer just to make the graduation numbers look better. The point of higher standards should be to help students succeed, not to make them fail to complete high school with their peers.

While federal, state and local officials have been attempting to implement and follow the federal law:

  • Children in the majority of schools in low-wealth districts continue to lack the most qualified teachers, adequate instructional materials and access to technology.
  • About 10.5 million children have no health insurance. Many live in conditions of poverty denying them the ability to physically and mentally develop their full cognitive ability. Child poverty rates in the United States are among the highest in the developed nations.
  • Millions of our children attend child-care centers that stifle creativity and hinder appropriate development.
  • Federal law requires special physical accommodations for children with disabilities, yet the federal government provides only a small fraction of the financial support needed for such adjustments.

Earlier this month, Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager issued an opinion that states might have no legal obligation to implement the federal law, particularly if costs exceed the amount of money the federal government is providing. She characterized No Child Left Behind as an unfunded mandate, and said the lawís "language seems clear and compelling: The federal government cannot compel the states to develop or pay for specific educational programs."

This opinion could be the first step toward a lawsuit challenging No Child left Behind. In any event, it is time for a bipartisan re-examination of the law that drew bipartisan support when it was enacted.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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