Continuing a recent trend of granting states and schools more flexibility to meet the stringent requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has announced new policies that ease the rules on testing limited-English students and defining “highly qualified” teachers.

The changes come as Congress prepares to renew NCLB next year. State and school leaders welcomed the news, because it helps them meet their goals–and avoid penalties–under the law.

The Education Department (ED) gave states final permission Sept. 13 to leave out the test scores of newly enrolled, limited-English kids when grading schools. The goal is to give schools extra time to work with limited-English students before being held accountable for their yearly progress.

The policy applies only to students who have been in a U.S. school for less than a year. States may exempt their math and reading scores when measuring yearly progress.

Though freshly repackaged, this flexibility is not new. States have been allowed to exempt test scores on a case-by-case basis since 2004, when former Education Secretary Rod Paige announced the draft policy. Forty of them now do it.

The latest news opens the offer to all states. It also adds language to ensure that students learning English aren’t ignored.

“We recognize that there are legitimate issues when students move to this country not speaking English,” Spellings said. “They do need to have some sort of adequate time to get up to speed.”

Spellings spoke about the policy to reporters before announcing it at a conference of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials in Washington.

Roughly 5.4 million public school students are learning English as a second language.

Under the plan, newly enrolled students must take their state test in math, but not in reading, in the first year. In both subjects, their scores may be exempted for that year, and states must disclose to the public how many children have been left out of the reading test.

The new rule also makes clear that schools should not try to turn it into a free pass. They must still help limited-English students master English language and content.

Spellings’ announcement finalizes one other change that has proved popular with states. Schools can consider students as “limited-English students”–and include them in progress reports that way–up to two years after these children have proven they know the language.

Schools campaigned for that. Principals say they could never show yearly progress for their group of limited-English kids if they couldn’t include the ones who had succeeded.

Paige first offered that policy in 2004, too, and 40 states have been using it since.

Meanwhile, ED is experimenting with about 20 states on different ways to test limited-English children, hoping to come up with good ideas for the nation.

In the other policy change, announced earlier this month, ED will allow states to count teachers as “highly qualified” under standards they choose.

Federal law allows veteran teachers to be considered highly qualified under factors that states choose, such as job evaluations, teaching awards, or service on school committees.

The department in May ordered states to phase out that system for most teachers. Watchdog groups and the department itself said many states were using this system to set weak, improper standards.

Now, Spellings has pulled back, telling states in a letter that they are “strongly encouraged,” though not required, to stop using the method to rate teachers.

The change could affect tens of thousands of teachers who have not met the conditions of NCLB. Otherwise, teachers would have to demonstrate competence by holding academic majors or passing tests in every subject they teach.

ED says timing is the reason for the change.

Coming up with a regulation to enforce the change could take a year or more, department spokesman Chad Colby said. Instead, the agency plans to ask Congress to make the change when it renews NCLB. That is scheduled to happen next year.

A lobbyist for the nation’s largest teachers union said department leaders are turning to Congress because “they don’t have the authority to do what they wanted to do.”

The National Education Association considers Spellings’ letter a victory.

The union opposed phasing out an option that could help teachers in many circumstances, such as when teachers change districts or assignments. The NEA also says the law protects the option anyway.

Lobbyist Joel Packer said the department for years has issued inconsistent guidance on what states can do. “I think they’ve created part of the problem, just a real level of confusion,” he said.

Most states have used the option in question–called the “high objective uniform state standard of evaluation,” or HOUSSE. It was meant to offer flexibility to veteran teachers.

Yet in her letter, Spellings admonishes some states for allowing teachers to be deemed highly qualified without making them prove they know their subjects.

“I urge you to re-examine your HOUSSE procedures to ensure that this is not the case in your state,” she wrote to state school chiefs. “Our students and parents deserve no less.”

President Bush’s education law says teachers are highly qualified when they have a bachelor’s degree, a state license, and proven competency in every subject they teach.

States were supposed to have a highly qualified teacher in every core academic class by the end of the last school year. None met that deadline, so each must try again this year.

About 90 percent of teachers are highly qualified, states say, although numbers vary widely across the states.

Meanwhile, about half the states are phasing out their use of a uniform state standard to rate teachers, Colby said. But Packer said that trend was driven in part by urging from the department, and that the latest letter might encourage states to keep the option.

Links:

Education Department
http://www.ed.gov

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org