White House offers flexibility on failing-school label
Chicago Tribune
March 19, 2008

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Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/230353

CHICAGO The Bush administration said Tuesday that it is willing to soften its long-held stance that every failing school, whether it fails marginally or miserably, be treated the same.

Under a plan unveiled by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, states would be allowed to differentiate how they label and punish schools based on the degree to which a given school fails to meet No Child Left Behind standards.

A school that missed only one achievement target, for example, could get a more favorable label and less severe sanctions than a school that missed several achievement goals.

"This will not change the guts of No Child Left Behind accountability," Spellings said during a conference call with reporters. "However, it gives states the opportunity to describe the range of schools that meet and do not meet in different ways."

Spellings plans to grant the leeway to up to 10 states that submit pilot projects during spring. The programs would not require a change in law.

In exchange, the chosen states would agree to target their efforts and resources toward helping the most chronically failing schools, which nationally have shown minimal progress.

Since No Child Left Behind became law six years ago, local and state education officials have complained about its one-size-fits-all approach.

By law, schools must ensure that subgroups of students broken down by race, income and special-education status meet annual math and reading goals. Schools that fail to meet standards in any subgroup are deemed failing and face a series of escalating sanctions that eventually could lead to closure.

Suburban school officials have been especially critical because some of their schools are being tagged as failing even though they have high overall test scores. In Illinois, for example, 150 schools were labeled underperforming last year only because special-education students didn't make the grade.

Some educators and policymakers praised Spellings' proposal. But Michael Petrilli, who served in the Education Department during President Bush's first term and now works for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, likened it to a "suburban schools relief act."

"This proposal creates a real risk that we could step back from the pressure currently on suburban schools to close the achievement gap and get all students up to proficiency," said Petrilli, vice president of the conservative think tank. "Depending on how it's implemented, you can imagine suburban schools that are not making the grade for African-American or poor students, for example, will no longer feel the pressure under NCLB to address these problems."

But Illinois state schools Superintendent Christopher Koch praised the plan and said he hopes to apply for the flexibility.

"One of my criticisms of No Child Left Behind is that it can be overly punitive," Koch said. "This allows us to develop a more nuanced system of distinguishing between schools."

Hundreds of schools across Arizona failed to meet the federal standards last year, though educators blamed many of the failures on the unresolved conflict between state and federal officials about what assistance special-education students can receive on standardized exams.

The September release of federal labels showed 10 Pima County schools had failed to meet the standards for at least three straight years and were on the cusp of federal intervention that could range from funding cuts to school restructuring.

For the 2006-07 school year, 83 schools across Pima County failed to meet federal requirements. That was a slight improvement from 2005-06, when 97 schools failed to do so. That slight bump locally was reflected statewide: In 2007, 509 schools failed across the state, down from 618 the prior year.

Arizona Daily Star