from The Columbus Dispatch - "No Child Law Leaves Many Shaking Their Heads"

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Saturday, August 13, 2005

By William L. Bainbridge

No Child Law Leaves Many Shaking Their Heads

A new school year is about to begin, and most parents still don't understand the No Child Left Behind law. Those who wish can review the rules on their state's department of-education Web site and read articles about the law. But in great confusion, the public must once again turn to teachers and administrators to explain the law. The only thing parents can be sure of is the law will keep changing.

Since President Bush signed this student-testing legislation in 2002, with the support of many prominent Democrats, the U.S. Department of Education has changed the rules nearly every year. The manipulation includes changes in measuring how much individual students learn in a year, measuring progress with students in special education and revisions in science rules. Even greater adjustments are expected when the law comes up for reauthorization in 2007.

Federal education officials claim they are trying to correct previous mistakes. However, continually changing the rules makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, to measure the impact of the legislation over time.

The law requires states to test students in math and reading/language arts in grades three through eight and once in high school. We are told that by 2014, each student will be expected to pass every test. That's an unrealistic goal. Meantime, examination scores must steadily increase for all children and each subgroup of students, including minorities, low-income students, children with disabilities and those who speak English as a second language.

The federal government permits up to 1 percent of special education students - those with severe learning disabilities - to take an alternative test. Because of rule modifications, an additional 2 percent of students apparently also will be permitted to take this modified test. The change likely will affect students who have moderate disabilities, but federal officials have not yet released the new school-year guidelines. Mounting evidence suggests the rules will continue to change every year.

A more significant change being debated is a "growth model." This could affect even more students. The federal law still would require schools to demonstrate that a specific percentage of students pass state exams each year. But a growth model would measure how well schools are teaching, based on the improvement of individual students from one year to the next.

Ohioans, for example, could look at how a student performed on the state reading tests and see how much the child improved from the previous year. Those kinds of data give schools credit for increasing student achievement, even if test scores are low. More than 100 school districts in Ohio are said to be implementing growth models, but the integrity of the measurement process over time clouds the picture of understanding how much progress is being made. For example, failure rates do not include students who dropped out of school before the tests were given. Because high-school dropout rates have continued to skyrocket, and given heightened awareness of how dropout data can be manipulated, the public is rightly concerned about the reliability of performance measures.

The No Child law increasingly involves the federal government in virtually every aspect of public education. In blue states and red states alike, the law continues to increase counterproductive tension between school systems, states and the federal government.

The bottom line is that federal reforms are not producing anticipated results because it remains impossible to legislate equal results for students of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds in all places. This certainly demonstrates good reason to return to the true conservative tradition of local governance of education.

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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