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Our Views: Skipping a grade

No Child waiver gives Ga. schools more leeway, but accountability should remain

POSTED: February 12, 2012 1:00 a.m.

The No Child Left Behind law is one 10-year-old many are happy to leave in the dust.

Cheers rang out Thursday as Georgia was named among 10 states nationwide that will be allowed to crawl out from under the burden of the law's education mandates. The move, announced by the White House, gives states more leeway in how to improve their schools and measure what students learn.

When passed in 2001, the law required all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. It brought key reform to education in the U.S. by setting clear standards to measure student achievement and put the onus of teaching on schools and districts by making them accountable for the results.

For that reason, it was hailed as a breakthrough. And to be fair, it achieved much of what it set out to do: Make schools improve and give students and parents more options when they do not.

Yet like any sweeping reform, its full effects could not be judged until it had been in place for several years. We now know that while many aspects of No Child have helped many students succeed, the law is overdue to be reworked to better meet its goals. But because of partisan gridlock in Congress, there is no consensus to do so.

By now, we all know the phrases that No Child has brought to the education lexicon: AYP, or Average Yearly Progress, the standard schools seek to reach; and Needs Improvement, the dunce cap stuck on schools that don't meet the required criteria of test scores and graduation rates.

Bringing accountability to school performance and student progress was a much-needed step. The problem is in how best to gauge that progress.

To date, the chief objective yardstick has been standardized test scores. These exams serve a purpose by putting a quantifiable number on student achievement, from individual scores to school and district averages. But using test scores as the only index has brought many other variables into play.

Critics have decried schools that put an emphasis on "teaching to the test" by preparing students to pass the exams to the exclusion of other learning. Such rote memorization just to reach AYP benefits the school but doesn't light the flame of learning for students.

Thus, it was little surprise that the push to reach desired AYP scores would inevitably lead some to try and game the system at the expense of learning. We saw the worst of that abuse in the cheating scandals in Atlanta and elsewhere.

Here in Hall County and Gainesville, the struggles of students still learning English often can drag down an entire school district. Schools with high numbers of students from immigrant or low-income households are penalized through no fault of their own. As the expected minimum standards have been raised steadily, it has become harder for some schools to reach AYP, sometimes because a handful of students in a particular subgroup unperformed or didn't take the tests in enough numbers.

That punitive aspect is the biggest downside of No Child. Failing schools must provide students with tutoring and transfer options, further straining districts that already are underfunded and understaffed.

As a result, administrators and teachers become more focused on saving their jobs than teaching. Though underperforming schools should be held accountable, there are too many factors beyond their control that can lead to unjust penalties.

Now Georgia and other states will be able to bend their learning programs to better prepare students for college and careers and measure their progress on both paths. Georgia's waiver is conditional, based on the state's new five-level rating system for schools and a still-to-be-determined method to link teacher evaluations to student progress, a stipulation of Race for the Top federal funding.

The goal will be to factor in more than student test scores to assess progress and identify schools that need help.

"No longer will we be bound by the narrow definitions of success found in No Child Left Behind," state School Superintendent John Barge said. "We will now be able to hold schools accountable and reward them for the work they do in all subjects with all students."

Georgia educators now face the challenge of taking the ambitious spirit of the No Child law and loosening its rigid parameters to better prepare students for work and college. It's not an easy task, and it's important that education leaders keep an open mind to innovative ideas and be more willing to change methods that don't get the job done.

Yet accountability must remain a key element of any barometer used to determine progress. The No Child law was based on good intentions, even if its implementation was flawed. Its aim was to stop shuffling students from grade to grade without determining if they learn anything along the way. We don't want to return to the days of social promotions and easy grades. Our schools must continue to set high performance standards for both students and teachers to make sure both groups meet their goals, for their sake and ours.

Whatever one thinks of the law, the idea that no child should be left behind should remain central to our educational mission. The vision of its authors was summed up by President George W. Bush, who insisted the "soft bigotry of low expectations" be replaced by rigorous, energetic, high-achieving schools.

It's clear the law didn't quite reach that lofty goal, but perhaps in retrospect it will be seen as an important first step to again make U.S. schools, educators and students the best they can be.



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