Education officials grapple with ‘No Child Left Behind’

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(Host) As schools open for another year, the Vermont Department of Education is working overtime to deal with new federal demands. State education officials say the “No Child Left Behind Act” poses special difficulties for rural states. They’re asking the government to be flexible about how the law is implemented, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports:

(Keese) Under the “No Child Left Behind Act,” each state sets its own school performance standards. The law, which is being phased in gradually, relies heavily on testing to determine whether schools meet those standards. All children, and all schools, are expected to meet targeted performance levels by 2014.

Federal officials have already shown some flexibility in Vermont’s current compliance plan. They’re making allowances for the state’s smallest schools, where a few bad test scores can skew the entire schools performance. In those cases, Vermont has persuaded the federal department to consider additional evidence of school performance, rather than just test scores.

(Daivd Larsen) “It’s not as if they’re just coming down and saying these are the things you folks have to do and you’re going to do every single one of them our way.”

(Keese) David Larsen is Vermont’s interim Education commissioner. He’s glad the federal government is willing to negotiate on some points, especially since the law clearly was not written with Vermont in mind.

But Vermont has also had to make changes. The state’s own standards assessment statute called for testing in grades four, eight and ten. The federal law requires testing every year from grades three to eight and once again in high school. So last year the Legislature changed the Vermont law to allow for testing every year, beginning in 2004.

Legislators are gearing up to tackle other provisions next year. The law specifies that children in schools that fail to meet the standards can choose to attend another school within the district. Larsen says the school choice issue will pose problems in this state.

(Larsen) “This law was meant for a city school district that might have 10or 20 schools in it. In Vermont school districts, they normally have one or two, and if they have two it might be an elementary school and a high school.”

(Keese) The law also requires documentation on the progress of certain groups. Poor children, students with disabilities, non-English speaking minority groups must all be tracked separately. All must meet the standards by 2014.

Only six Vermont schools are classified as needing assistance now. The number could rise when new test scores are published in October. Officials say schools will find it harder to meet improvement standards, once the easier changes are made and only the toughest problems remain.

The federal act also requires improvements in teacher qualifications. But teacher training is one area marked for cuts in the Bush administration’s new proposal to slash $200 million from the education budget. Burlington Senator Jim Condos heads the Senate Education Committee. He says No Child Left Behind is already underfunded.

(Condos) “The president is providing $13 billion, which sounds like a lot of money. But when you understand that the estimated implementation cost is approximately $75 billion, it falls far short. It’s almost a seven-to-one ratio.”

(Keese) Condos says Vermont is in relatively good shape now because the state already had standards and tests when the federal law took effect. But he says the law could add millions to Vermont’s education budget eventually, unless something changes.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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