from the SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER - Federal school reform in sad shape

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Friday, August 12, 2005

By William L. Bainbridge
Guest Columnist

Federal school reform in sad shape

As a new school year begins, the political appointees in Washington, D.C., continue to demonstrate a profound and far-reaching lack of answers to the crucial questions surrounding U.S. public education. New data from their own National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAPE), heralded as the nation's education report card, show that the typical 13-year-old could read no better in the last school year reported (2003-04) than the student's counterpart five years earlier. Stagnant reading scores among middle-school students have caught the attention of educators. School officials are starting to target literacy programs geared toward adolescents after years of focusing mostly on younger children.

The failure rates do not include students who dropped out of school before the tests were given. Under the current administration, high school dropout rates have continued to skyrocket. Heightened public attention to the ways in which dropout data can be manipulated, such as the proven-to-be-fraudulent Houston Independent School District "Miracle," raise significant public concerns about the reliability of such performance measures.

We can just imagine the impact these non-completers will have on welfare, unemployment and crime rates.

Most parents don't understand the federal No Child Left Behind law. Those who try may review the rules on their state department of education's Web sites and read articles about the law. In great confusion, the pubic must once again turn to teachers and administrators to explain the law. The only thing parents can be sure of is that the law will keep changing.

Since President Bush signed this student testing legislation in 2002, with the support of prominent Democrats such as Edward M. Kennedy and George Miller, the U.S. Department of Education has changed the rules nearly every year. The political 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 their previous mistakes. However, continually changing the rules makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, to measure the productivity 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, an unrealistic goal. In the meantime, examination scores must increase steadily 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 currently 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 will apparently also be permitted to take this modified test. The change likely will affect students with moderate disabilities, but federal officials have not yet released the new school-year guidelines. Mounting evidence suggests the rules will continue to change yearly.

A more significant change being debated is a "growth model." Such a change could affect even more students. The federal law would still require schools to demonstrate that a specific percentage of students passed 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 Ohio school systems reportedly are implementing growth models, but the integrity of the measurement process over time clouds the picture of understanding just how much progress is being made.

The No Child Left Behind law increasingly involves the federal government in virtually every aspect of local 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 federal reforms are not producing anticipated results because it remains impossible to legislate equal results for all students of diverse socio-economic 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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