The Bush administration sought on April 22 to bolster its signature education law, proposing new rules designed to address the nation’s dropout problem and ensure educators pay close attention to the achievement of minority students.
As part of changes proposed for the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said all states by the 2012-13 school year should have to calculate their graduation rates in a single, uniform way.
States would be told, in most cases, to count as graduates those students who leave on time and with a regular degree. Research reportedly indicates students who take extra time or get alternatives to diplomas, such as a GED, generally don’t do as well in college or in the work force.
Implementing the proposed rules could have an impact on programming for the increasingly popular student information systems (SIS) many school districts now rely on. Some SIS providers, however, said they can handle whatever changes the new rules might require.
"For us, it’s not a particularly tough job to do," said Brian Currie, CEO of aal Solutions. Currie explained that eSIS, the company’s student information system, is an enterprise structure that runs everything from a central point. Said Andrea Chiamarelli, aal’s chief operating officer, "Our system is very capable of handling that situation, and it would be a benefit to our clients because things will be standardized." In fact, another aal representative explained, a uniform approach might reduce SIS maintenance costs.
Brent Bingham, vice president of product marketing for Pearson’s School Systems group, said his company’s SIS offerings are designed to support multiple needs and that the company is looking forward to meeting the requirements "of the soon-to-be defined standard formulation for graduation rates."
According to ED, states currently use all kinds of methods to determine their graduation rates, many of which are based on unreliable information about school dropouts, a practice that can make a state’s graduation rate seem better than it actually is.
Although states would no longer be able to use their own methods for calculating graduation rates, they still would be able to set their own goals for getting more students to graduate. Critics say that leeway might allow some states to continue setting weak improvement goals.
The administration’s proposed regulations would require schools to be judged not only on how the overall student body does but also on the percentage of minority students who graduate.
Nationally, an estimated 70 percent of students graduate on time with a regular diploma. For Hispanic and black students, the proportion drops to about half.
Critics of NCLB have complained that judging schools on test scores but not, to the same degree, on graduation rates has created an incentive for schools to push weak students out or into non-diploma tracks.
NCLB requires testing in reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school. The stated goal is to get all kids doing math and reading at their proper grade level by 2013-14.
Spellings has been taking steps in recent months to make changes to the law directly from her office, after efforts to rewrite the bill in Congress stalled. The proposed regulations amount to the most comprehensive set of administrative changes she has sought so far.
"The Congress, I guess because of the political and legislative climate, has not been able to get a reauthorization under way this year," Spellings said in an interview. "I know that schools and students need help now, and we are prepared to act administratively."
The regulations call for a federal review of state policies regarding the exclusion of test scores of students in racial groups deemed too small to be statistically significant or so small that student privacy could be jeopardized. Critics say too many kids’ scores are being left aside under these policies.
The regulations also call for school districts to demonstrate that they are doing all they can to notify parents of low-income students in struggling schools that free tutoring is available. If the districts fail to do that, their ability to spend federal funds could be limited. The department estimates only 14 percent of eligible students receive the tutoring available to them.
An even smaller percentage of students who are allowed to transfer to higher-performing schools make that switch, in part because they aren’t always informed of vacancies on time. The regulations require schools to publicize open spots at least 14 days before school starts.
The administration’s proposal also would tighten the rules around the corrective steps schools must take once they’ve failed to hit progress goals for many consecutive years.
Spellings and others have said schools often take quick steps when reforming troubled schools, such as replacing principals, rather than taking more comprehensive action. "Real school restructuring is not a new coat of paint," Spellings said.
In a statement, President Bush was quoted as saying that the regulations would "address the dropout crisis in America, strengthen accountability, improve our lowest-performing schools, and ensure that more students get access to high-quality tutoring."
The administration is seeking public comments before making the regulations final in the fall.
Regulations can be overturned by the new administration that will take over next January. That’s unlikely, however, Spellings asserted, because the rules she is proposing have widespread support. She said she hoped the ideas would help shape any future debate on Capitol Hill.
"I think these things will help the law work better in the field…and I think they are ways for the Congress to have a good jumping-off place when they start on their work," she said.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who chairs the Senate education committee, said the regulations "include important improvements for implementing No Child Left Behind."
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who chairs the House education committee, said the new rules fall short of what’s needed. He said the Bush administration didn’t try hard enough to get a revised law through Congress.
"The changes amount to tinkering with a law that needs significant improvements, as most parents, educators, and students know," Miller said.
Miller had sought changes that included a merit-pay program to reward teachers who boost student performance. Teacher unions opposed that plan. The congressman also wanted to expand the criteria under which schools are judged, a suggestion rejected by the administration.
U.S. Department of Education
Pearson School Systems