Since taking office in January, I’ve been traveling around the country talking with parents, educators, and policymakers about how [No Child Left Behind] is working and what needs to work better. And wherever I go, I hear the same three questions: How can we do a better job assessing students with disabilities? What’s the best way to measure the progress of students new to the English language? And how can we reward schools for improving from year to year? I promised to work with you to address these issues in a sensible, workable way that makes raising student achievement our top priority.

When we spoke at Mount Vernon last April, I announced a common-sense approach for implementing No Child Left Behind based on the core principles of the law. And together, we’ve taken some important steps down that path:

  • Thirty-one states have signed up for developing modified achievement standards for students with disabilities who need additional time and intensive instruction to meet standards. Before the end of the year, we’ll be releasing a regulation and a tool kit to help states develop these assessments and identify the 2 percent of students who fit this description.

  • In addition, we convened a working group of researchers and educators to study how we can best measure the progress of students new to the English language.

  • We also aligned the timeline for paraprofessionals with the timeline for highly qualified teachers. We’ve pledged to work with states that are making a good-faith effort to place a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, especially in lower-income communities where a good teacher can make all the difference.

  • And we’ve launched pilot programs with Chicago, Boston, New York City, and Virginia to help more low-income students take advantage of free tutoring under No Child Left Behind.

I know a law is only as good as its implementation. And with all these measures, our focus has been on working with you to help students who in the past have often been left behind–students with disabilities, students new to the English language, and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Thanks to No Child Left Behind, the conversation has shifted from “can these students learn” to “how can we make sure they learn.”

For the first time ever, we are holding ourselves accountable for ensuring every child–regardless of race, income, or special needs–can read and do math on grade level. The latest nation’s education report card shows we’re on the right track, but we must pick up the pace to close the achievement gap and get every child to grade level or above by 2014.

As I said, many educators and policymakers have asked me about the possibility of using growth models to recognize the progress schools are making toward this goal. This summer my department convened a working group to explore how states could use growth models for state accountability plans under No Child Left Behind.

We met with experts, researchers, and policymakers, including many of you who have used growth models as part of your state accountability systems for years. We discussed what’s required to implement a growth model and how [growth models] can show how schools and students are improving from year to year.

At the same time, we’re not just looking for any level of improvement. We’re working to meet specific goals within the next decade, as laid out in the law. A successful growth model under No Child Left Behind must put all students on track to be on grade level by 2014. That means when a student is behind, one year of progress for every year of instruction is not enough to close the gap. We will expect more. We must not–and I will not–back away from this important goal.

Today, I’m announcing a pilot program where interested and qualified states can submit proposals for developing growth models that follow the bright-line principles of No Child Left Behind. The Department will approve no more than 10 high-quality growth models as part of this pilot. I will be releasing a letter soon outlining the key elements that states must meet in submitting a growth model proposal to the Department. It goes without saying that you can’t measure growth without annual assessment data, and states that haven’t had annual assessment for more than a year will have to wait to do so. And you can’t close the achievement gap unless you continue to break down that assessment data by student groups.

It’s no accident that states that have been annually assessing students and following these core principles the longest are getting the best results, and they’re also the ones that have now arrived at the point where they can consider growth models to meet the goals of No Child Left Behind. There is nothing inconsistent between this pilot and the bright lines of the law. A growth model is not a way around accountability standards. It’s a way for states that are already raising achievement and following the bright-line principles of the law to strengthen accountability.

Many of your states may not yet have the assessment systems or data systems to meet the requirements for the pilot. But you can still reward schools for making improvements by using an index model. Under No Child Left Behind, nine states currently use index models that give schools credit for improving student achievement as a way of holding them accountable. I’ll include more information on how these models work in my letter as well.

We’re open to new ideas, but we’re not taking our eye off the ball. There are many different routes for states to take, but they all must begin with a commitment to annual assessment and disaggregation of data. And they all must lead to closing the achievement gap and every student reaching grade level by 2014. This is good policy for all students, and we must stick with it.

We know the formula for success: higher standards and accountability for results. That’s why every state must have its assessment system fully in place by the end of this school year.

As I said, states that have been out in front as pioneers are already getting great results–states like Massachusetts, where Dave Driscoll has been relentless in his fight to close the achievement gap. The hard work is paying off. He’s made Massachusetts a shining example for other states.

Last week, I unveiled a new resource for states called No Child Left Behind: A Road Map to State Implementation. We have copies here today, and I hope you all will have the chance to review it. The road map describes ways the Department–together with state and local policy makers–is making No Child Left Behind work for students and educators across our country.

We all hear a lot of stories about why schools are missing Adequate Yearly Progress, but we don’t hear much about how thousands of other schools are making it and closing the achievement gap. We must work together to do a better job recognizing these schools and sharing their stories. We must hold them up as models for other schools to follow.

We have a lot more work to do, especially in our high schools where we’ve made no progress in 30 years. This spring I visited Huguenot High School here in Richmond with Governor Warner, who has been a powerful voice for high school reform in Virginia and across the nation. That’s because he understands the stakes. About 80 percent of the fastest-growing jobs require at least some postsecondary education. Yet far too many students are leaving high school unprepared for college. A recent study from ACT found that less than half of high school students graduate ready for college-level math and science–to help more students graduate ready for college or work.

Thanks for inviting me today. Together, we’ve taken some important steps forward since last April when I announced a new path for No Child Left Behind. Scores are rising, the achievement gap is closing, and the law is working. Now we must continue to work together to close the achievement gap and ensure every child receives a [high-] quality education.

We still have much to do, but we know the path forward. The bright lines of the law–annually assessing students, disaggregating data, and closing the achievement gap–point the way.