Feeling the impact of No Child Left Behind

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(Host) Local communities are beginning to feel the impact of the federal No Child Left Behind testing law. Commentator Allen Gilbert wonders if this really is the best way to help schools work better for kids.

(Gilbert) The federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act is beginning to kick in. Some communities are finding out what it means to have their schools “identified”. That’s the label that says a school isn’t meeting a measure called “adequate yearly progress.”

Some of the identified schools in Vermont are considering an option allowed under the law — to withdraw from the federal testing program. The schools just don’t see the benefit of the federal system. And they think that the sanctions — which can include closure of an “identified” school — won’t help kids at all.

The federal program actually doesn’t have its own set of tests, or its own testing standards. Instead, it mandates that individual states choose acceptable tests. States also develop the standards by which their schools must show “adequate yearly progress.”

This means that different states may be using different tests to meet the requirements of the federal law. It also means that different states are setting different performance standards for their students.

It’s possible that a state with a large number of identified schools — such as Florida — truly does have a lot of schools that aren’t working for kids. But as federal Education Secretary Rod Paige told the National Press Club recently, it’s also possible that the state has set its standards so high that relatively few kids can meet them. That’s good, he suggested.

But this prompts the question, How do you measure “good”? For in another state, the same scores may not result in nearly so many identified schools. Everything depends on the standards that an individual state sets.

There’s another level of relativity in the federal program. The program requires something called “disaggregation” of student results. This means that low scores by any sub-group within one grade in a school can cause a school to be identified — even if other students’ scores are acceptable. These sub-groups are defined by gender, race, ethnicity, income, English proficiency, disability, and migrant status.

Vermont established a comprehensive statewide testing system nearly a decade ago. We set “adequate yearly progress” standards for schools. And if schools didn’t meet them, our state Education Department sent in experts to work with those schools. The Vermont system was based on collaborative assistance, rather than the federal system’s punitive sanctions.

And that’s why some Vermont schools are considering dropping out of the federal testing program and going back to the old state system. They think that the state system works better for kids. And because the federal government provides so little education aid, the dollar amount of the federal funds that the schools will lose by dropping out of the federal system is, in most cases, small.

I remain convinced that the schools that work best are schools where community members are closely involved. Nowhere in the country do a state’s citizens have more opportunity to serve on a local school board than here in Vermont. Some say that having so many citizens involved in school governance is an impediment. I see it as an opportunity. Community involvement is the best way to make sure that no child is left behind.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.

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