“It is results that truly matter, not the bureaucratic way you get there,” declared Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. She was addressing an April 7 meeting with state education chiefs at Mount Vernon, the estate of America’s first president, George Washington, just south of Washington, D.C.

The announcement was portrayed as a major policy shift for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in its implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The department now will permit greater flexibility to states in the implementation of the law, Spellings said–provided states can demonstrate student achievement through improvement on NCLB-mandated annual assessments.

Spellings said the new NCLB guidelines, called “Raising Achievement: A New Path for No Child Left Behind,” represent a fairer and more flexible approach to implementing the law. Under the new policy, states seeking additional flexibility in the implementation of NCLB requirements will receive credit for progress made regarding NCLB reforms already under way.

Spellings outlined the kinds of credit ED would consider giving states when determining how flexible it would be in negotiating state education plans.

First, she said the pillars, or “bright lines,” of the NCLB are non-negotiable: annual testing to determine student achievement; reporting assessment results by student subgroups (children with disabilities, the economically disadvantaged, minority students, and English-language learners); developing ways to increase parental involvement in education; and taking proactive measures to ensure that highly qualified teachers are in the classroom.

Second, she said states must demonstrate they are taking measures to guarantee that students are learning and that assessment scores and graduation rates are on the road to improvement.

Third, Spellings said states must have an “overall sound” state education policy. She suggested they “harness the power of technology” to implement sound education plans. Examples include “providing web-based tools to align curricula, instruction, and funding,” using ED’s Teacher-to-Teacher eLearning courses, and creating a statewide electronic database of student and school statistics.

Spellings gave an example of this new “common-sense” approach in ED’s revised policy for working with states on improving services to children with cognitive disabilities. Under current NCLB regulations, up to 1 percent of students with academic disabilities are permitted to take tests that are specifically designed for their abilities. Spellings said ED is now willing to accommodate larger percentages on a state-by-state basis, “as long as the state is working to best serve those students by providing rigorous, research-based training for teachers, improving assessments, and organizing collaboration between special-education and classroom teachers.”

Spellings said her department will direct $14 million to the development of a comprehensive toolkit to support academically disabled children. The toolkit will be “based upon the best research from the Institute of Education Sciences and the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development to help states identify and assess students with disabilities.”

The policy shift comes in response to complaints from several state education departments that NCLB’s rules are too stringent and clash with accountability systems already established in their own states. At least one state, Connecticut, has sued the department for leniency in implementing the law.

Though she did not mention it by name, Spellings alluded to the Connecticut court challenge several times during her speech. When her speech moved from what amounted to an NCLB progress report to a discussion of the new policy shift, she pointedly alluded to the Connecticut situation, saying, “There are certain ‘bright lines’ to the law in this statute. One is assessing all students every year from grades three through eight–not every other year or every other class.”

Connecticut wants its long-established biannual assessment program to stand, in part because it says the federal government is not doing its part to fund expansions in testing to include grades 3,5, and 7. ED has refused to consider the state’s request on the grounds that annual assessment is a non-negotiable tenet of the law–and that Connecticut reportedly has discrepancies as large as 37 percentage points between the scores of white students versus minorities in some grades in which students are assessed. The department contends that the application of testing and other NCLB requirements will help reduce these differences between subgroups of students.

Calls to Connecticut Department of Education officials went unanswered by press time. Spellings also called out Kansas and Massachusetts as states that are “leaving children behind” by not complying with mandated assessments.

She said ED is willing to consider requests for procedural shifts in terms of NCLB implementation, as long as the achievement results for students are realized and the principles of the law are followed. She underlined the government’s new attitude by saying that ED believes in “using a workable, flexible approach by looking at academic achievement first–[which] is the way it should be.”

She said states that understand how to make this system work to their advantage will be “gratified.” But she warned that states “looking for loopholes to simply take federal funds, ignore the intent of the law, and have minimal results to show for their millions upon millions in federal funds will … be disappointed.”

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Links:

“Raising Achievement: A New Path for No Child Left Behind” speech
http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/2005/04/04072005.html