Florida offers look at problems with education law

While NCLB shined a light on the performance of all student subgroups, ultimately the law hasn't worked as intended.

By almost any measure, Norma Butler Bossard Elementary School is a top performing school in Miami: It has consistently been rated an “A” by the state, and students have achieved high scores on Florida’s standardized math and reading exams.

Yet when it comes to the federal No Child Left Behind law, the school hasn’t lived up to expectations. Last year, 79 percent of students had to be at grade level in reading and 80 percent in math. Overall, the students exceeded those goals. But two subgroups of students—English language learners and the economically disadvantaged—did not.

“This is a crystallization of the challenge,” said Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

Responding to an outcry from the states and congressional inaction on rewriting the law, President Barack Obama on Feb. 9 told 10 states, including Florida, that they will be freed from the strictest elements of the law, including the requirement that all students be up to par in math and reading by 2014. In exchange for flexibility, states had to present individualized plans for ensuring that all students leave school ready for college or a career. The plans must set new achievement targets, rewarding high performing schools, and focusing on those that are struggling.

“We can combine greater freedom with greater accountability,” Obama said.

Florida, home to several of the nation’s largest school districts, offers a look into what went wrong with the law and why states are now clamoring for relief.

No Child Left Behind was signed into law by former President George W. Bush a decade ago with the intention of closing the vast achievement gaps between poor and affluent students, whites and minorities. A key part of the legislation requires states to set annual benchmarks for the percentage of students scoring proficient in math and reading on state standardized exams, leading up to 100-percent proficiency in 2014.

Each school is held accountable for the performance of every student group—including minorities, English learners, and the poor—in meeting those benchmarks.

If any one of those groups does not meet the targets, the school falls out of compliance. Schools that don’t meet the goals for two consecutive years are labeled “in need of improvement,” and a series of corrective steps comes into play, including student transfers to a higher performing school, providing tutoring, replacing staff, or even closing.

Florida had passed significant education reforms shortly before No Child Left Behind went into effect, including an A-to-F school grading system based on student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. After 2002, there were two separate school evaluations—the state’s and the one provided through No Child Left Behind.

Increasingly, those painted two contrasting pictures of a school’s progress.

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