Faltering Schools May Get Reprieve

U.S. Secretary of Education promises to waive standards that threatened federal takeover of schools, including Rim Country Middle School

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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan this week promised to waive requirements that could result in the federal takeover of schools in which every single student doesn’t pass basic tests on math, reading and writing.

The announcement came as a relief to administrators across the country, where 39,000 of the nation’s 100,000 schools this year failed to make “adequate yearly progress” on the tests of basic knowledge included as part of the sweeping No Child Left Behind federal reforms.

Both Rim Country Middle School and the Payson Center for Success this year fell short of the federal standards.

Payson Unified School District officials said every school in the district would have trouble ensuring that every single student in every single grade passed the standardized tests, which includes most special education and English as a Second Language students.

However, Duncan’s announcement that the sharp increase in the national standards approved by Congress has become a “slow-motion train wreck” that would slap a “failing” label on almost all of the nation’s schools when the standard hits the 100 percent level in 2014.

The federal Department of Education has been swamped by protests from school districts, after a 10 percent jump in the standard this year resulted in a 40 percent increase in the number of schools failing to make “adequate yearly progress.”

In Rim Country Middle School, the subgroup of low-income students didn’t hit the new standard on the math test, which in Arizona is the state-devised AIMS test.

Payson Center for Success fell short on some test scores and on its four-year graduation rate. District officials said that the alternative high school caters to students who for one reason or another left the traditional high school setting, so its four-year graduation rate will always lag behind.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress for more than three years running face the threat of a takeover by the federal government. In that case, federal officials fire the entire administration and often most of the teachers to bring in a new, turn-around staff. So far, the federal government has taken over only a handful of schools — almost all of them with large populations of minority and low-income students.

Duncan said that he would waive the law’s proficiency requirements for schools in states that have developed their own tests and accountability programs. Arizona has instituted the AIMS test, which all students must pass to get a diploma. The state department of education is also working on a system that will give each school in the state a letter grade based on things like test scores and graduation rates.

Congress imposed the federal standards in 2002, but set the bar low initially. In theory, the law was intended to make states develop standards and devise tests and then adapt curriculums to those standards.

The scores required to make adequate progress rose very slowly until this year, when the standard jumped by 10 percent. It will rise another 10 percent next year and hit 100 percent in 2014.

Schools across the country this year fell short of the escalating federal standards. For instance, 89 percent of Florida’s schools fell short of the federal standards this year, even though reforms in that state have become a national model for conservative school reform groups. In Tennessee, last year 91 percent of the schools met the standard. This year, only 38 percent made the grade.

Several proposals to overhaul the program and recalibrate the standards have languished in the House Education Committee.

However, Duncan said he couldn’t wait for Congress to act, given the prospect that the system will end up imposing a failing label on almost every school in the country. He said the No Child Left Behind legislation gave him broad powers to issue waivers.

However, some members of the House Education Committee bitterly criticized Duncan’s action, saying he had unconstitutionally infringed the powers of the Legislature.

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