Schools and districts can fail Adequate Yearly Progress if, among other things, participation in standardized testing is less than 95 percent - regardless of performance. That rate extends to every subcategory of students, including race, economic background, special needs and English-language learners.
For example, if a school has 30 special needs students and two of them do not take the test - even if they decline by their parents' choice - the school fails Adequate Yearly Progress.
Performance is also an issue. Sheer said to pass the law's requirements his special needs and English as a Second Language teachers would have to "completely shift their focus" just to meet the standard.
Littleton isn't alone.
Officials in some of the state's highest- performing districts fear that despite overall outstanding performance, they will not meet the federal standards.
With some of the most respected schools in the state expected to fail, many administrators are frustrated and upset.
Officials with the Colorado Department of Education, however, are confident most schools will reach the goals mandated by the law.
The national legislation is the most far-reaching education measure in nearly four decades, experts say.
Not only does it force schools to improve, but for the first time it lets parents know how each specific school district stands academically, said Kathy Christie, an Englewood school board member and policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
"As a parent, I would have really appreciated this information, and I think most parents will appreciate it now, as well," Christie said.
Education officials are starting to inform districts whether they are likely to pass Adequate Yearly Progress, although they will have a chance to appeal.
A district or school can fail if it meets all but one aspect of Adequate Yearly Progress.
If a district fails two years in a row, it must give parents the option of sending their children to a successful school at the district's cost.
Three failing years bring funding penalties, and a fourth means a total restructuring of the curriculum.
Federal officials insist schools that come up short do not "fail," they "need improvement."
Local officials, however, are not mincing words about Adequate Yearly Progress.
"That is the most depressing thing I have ever seen," Cherry Creek school board member Aagje Barber said at a recent meeting.
The Cherry Creek district will have to meet 153 individual criteria under the law because the district's larger size means their students fill nearly every subcategory for race and ability.
The board expects the district to pass 140 to 145 of the 153 individual requirements, according to Nola Wellman, the assistant superintendent of schools.
The number of requirements can vary depending on demographics of a district or school. In Colorado, if there are 30 or more students in a subcategory - such as special needs or Hispanic - those students must be tested and meet standards in reading and math. Larger schools and districts typically have more subcategories and more requirements.
Also, the number of academic requirements changes depending on whether it's an elementary, middle and high school.
School administrators from districts of nearly every size and demographic say new federal regulations are unrealistic, if not impossible for diverse schools.
Many worry the regulations will give parents the wrong idea about their children's education.
"It was bad enough when only 15 percent of our 10th-graders passed the CSAP (Colorado Student Assessment Program)," said Cherry Creek School District superintendent Monte Moses.
Preliminary data from the state shows that as many as 60 percent of Colorado schools have made Adequate Yearly Progress, said Bill Windler, assistant commissioner for the Colorado Department of Education.
"I think that's really good news because these are steep goals and schools are making AYP right out of the box," he said.
Windler added school districts will likely be surprised at the results.
"I think there may be some preconceived notions about what the calculations will yield," he said.
A preliminary list of how schools rated is expected to be released in about two weeks, with a final list in December, Windler said.
One aspect of the new law allows states plenty of flexibility in calculating yearly progress.
States, for instance, vary on how they define "proficient." In Colorado, thousands of kids who scored only "partially proficient" on the statewide CSAP exam have been lumped into the "proficient" category to meet the federal requirements, said Christie of the Education Commission of the States.
"That will certainly help schools make the AYP," she said.
States also have leeway in deciding how many students can be in a particular subgroup - 25 African-Americans or 40 special-education students, for example - before a school is judged on subgroup performance. In Colorado, a district or school must have 30 students in a subcategory before it is scored, district officials said.
Still, schools are worried that efforts to bring students with disabilities and non-English speaking students up to standards will fall short, Christie said.
"Many are frustrated on how they are going to bring those two groups up to speed," she said.
One Cherry Creek administrator said in some instances the regulations for subcategories do not make sense.
"We have to have 1 percent of our (English-as-a-second-language) students score 'advanced' on the reading section," said Kevin Matter, Cherry Creek's director of assessment and evaluation. "If they could read at an advanced level, they would not be in that program."
Denver Public Schools, one of the most ethnically diverse districts in the state, is also likely to have several schools that won't meet the annual progress requirements, say officials.
But that will provide the impetus to meet new, higher standards, said DPS assistant superintendent Wayne Eckerling.
"We fully support the intent of the law," Eckerling said, "and we'll continue to work to implement it."
Rural schools fret they won't be able to attract and retain qualified teachers. The law states every public school teacher in core content areas - including writing and math - must be "highly qualified" in each subject they teach by the 2005-06 school year.
"I'm not sure how we're going to do it," said Dale Oliver, superintendent of the 33-student Arickaree School District on Colorado's Eastern Plains.
The regulations have already caused confusion with results varying wildly around the country.
Those variations have led to some states, including Florida, leaving up to 90 percent of their schools off the AYP list while other states, like Minnesota, have nearly every school making the AYP.
In Nebraska, school administrators have refused to make Adequate Yearly Progress the focus of their curriculum because schools feel too much has to be changed.
"A lot of people are frustrated here," said John Bonaiuto, executive director of the Nebraska Association of School Boards. "In some cases, the new regulations just do not make sense. This law was rushed through to get it on the books, and the feds are going to have to work some of the kinks out."
But federal officials defend the program and its principals.
"In the past, schools could hide behind good averages," said Dan Langan, a spokesman for the federal Department of Education. "But when you disintegrate that, you find that there were kids that were left behind. With this law, we find them and make sure they are taken care of."
Signed into law by President Bush in 2001, the act earned the backing of Democrats and Republicans because it is primarily aimed at improving tests scores of students in low-performing schools and holding states and schools more accountable for student progress.
The law dictates that states begin annual testing of students in grades three to eight. Colorado already tests students in grades three to 10.
No Child Left Behind also says every student must be up to "proficient" level on state tests by the 2013-14 school year, while individual schools must annually reach adequate yearly progress targets.
Eighty-two schools in Colorado - 34 in Denver Public Schools - are already on federal school improvement or corrective action plans. These are schools that get Title 1 funds for students from poor families and have scored poorly on the CSAP exam.
Federal law says these schools must either offer parents a chance to bus their children to a higher-performing school or offer extra tutoring services.
Administrators across the country applaud the effort to service every child. But good intentions aside, superintendents such as Sheer are left questioning the merits of No Child Left Behind.
"It is very difficult to talk about these problems and not sound like you are just complaining," Sheer said. "But it is a the-whippings-will-continue-until-morale- improves kind of situation,"
Denver Post staff writer John Ingold contributed to this report.