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Are we leaving students behind?
Debate over No Child Left Behind renewal heating up
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The federal No Child Left Behind Act is set for a face-lift, but whether it's a tweaking here and there or a major overhaul remains to be seen.

The law, which has influenced state and local education thinking and policy the past five years, is up for reauthorization, with elected officials and education groups issuing proposals and insights.

The latest plan, announced earlier this month, is the draft version of a bill from U.S. Rep. George Miller, Democratic chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and the committee's senior Republican member, Buck McKeon of California.

The bill proposes wide-ranging changes, including a focus on boosting graduation rates and changes in the labeling of schools that don't make "adequate yearly progress," or AYP, which lies at the heart of the accountability-driven law.

But perhaps one of the most significant changes -- and one that's sure to please many school administrators -- centers on how to measure academic progress.

Under the current law, states must use a standardized test aligned with their basic-skills curriculum to judge whether schools are making AYP.

Schools that don't make AYP for two consecutive years in the same testing area are classified as "needs improvement" and face a series of escalating sanctions, beginning with offering parents the choice to move their child to a non-needs improvement school.

The House bill would allow states to use more than a single test for accountability purposes.

"States can use multiple, state-developed assessments taken at different points in time to measure AYP and may consider more than reading and math assessments in the final AYP determination," according to a summary of the draft.

Additional indicators of school progress include college enrollment rates, percentages of students successfully completing end of course exams for college preparatory courses and assessments in history, science, civics and government, and writing.

Georgia uses the High School Graduation Tests to evaluate high schools and the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, or CRCT, for elementary and middle schools.

"The realities of quantifying student achievement at a single moment in time are dawning for (No Child Left Behind)," said Raymond Akridge, principal of Myers Elementary School in southeast Hall, a retired Georgia educator and founder of the Watkinsville-based consulting firm, Education Leadership Inc.

"Such a model has not and will not serve the purpose of educating our youth for competition in our global society."

Nath Morris, a Hall County Board of Education member who serves as that group's liaison to the state legislature, agrees with the proposed change, as well.

"There is more to education and more to success in life than achieving test scores only in the areas of reading and math," he said.

U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, a Gainesville Republican, said he doesn't oppose the idea that "other indicators give a better mix" on whether schools are making AYP, "so long as the basic skill of reading is not diminished in terms of importance."

Reading, he added, "is the foundation for all other measurements."

Also, and perhaps more significantly, the bill would allow states to measure the progress of individual students, rather than compare the test performance of one group of students to a different group of students on a year-to-year basis, as is the case now.

"Most everyone agrees that's a better way to measure progress," Deal said. "It has been done in a pilot project (with several states) and appears to be ... working pretty well."

The bill says that for states to use the individual "growth model," they must have data systems in place that can track students' progress annually.

In a statement to Georgia's congressional delegation, state Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox and Georgia Board of Education Chairwoman Wanda Barrs said they believe the new law should permit states to use the growth model.

"We do have a longitudinal system that went online last year," said Dana Tofig, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education. "In the near future, we will be able to do a growth model system."

Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County schools, said the CRCT was not originally designed to measure annual growth of individual students.

"I remain skeptical of discovering a newfound longitudinal quality after development," he said.

Another key point in the draft is how to address English-language learners, a group of students that are filling up schools in the Gainesville and Hall County districts.

The bills would extend the time that districts could test students in their native language from three to five years.

"I'm concerned with that," Deal said. "We ought to make this (group of students) as fluent in English as soon as possible."

Schofield said that generally he is encouraged by early revisions of the law.

"Up to this point, we have invested our nation's resources and our children's futures in an accountability system designed to help our most fragile students become minimally proficient," he said.

The focus hasn't been on "demanding the creation of innovative systems that allow all students to be challenged and stretched toward achieving at their fullest potential.

"Additionally, beginning to talk about measuring 21st-century skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration is a hopeful sign."

Schofield said he is saddened, however, "by the lack of a profound and definitive early literacy goal."

"We could give this nation no greater gift than to demand that each and every child within our borders reads at or above grade level by the end of the third grade," he said.

Morris said he believes schools should not be labeled as not making AYP based on the results of one "subgroup," or category of students based on race, English language ability and other factors.

"I applaud the representatives' acknowledgment that students with limited English language skills may need basic measurements on how well they are doing acquiring the language skills needed to succeed in other standards," he said.

Steven Ballowe, superintendent of Gainesville city schools, said he believes "there should be national standards and expectations and (that) the State of Georgia and our children should be able to meet and exceed these national standards.

"Current practice finds many Georgia expectations or reporting standards are much greater than other states."

No Child Left Behind expires at the end of the year but can continue as it has as long as Congress funds it.

Deal said he doesn't see any revisions coming soon. "It's early still," he said.

And if 2008 rolls around before reauthorization, "it's not one of those type of issues that will be determined by presidential politics," he added.

Carl Cavalli, associate professor of political science at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, said the political landscape "is very different from when (the law) was first passed."

"The president's position is much weaker. The Democrats are much stronger and, going into an election year the Democrats feel favors them, I'm sure they're in no mood to compromise," he said.

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