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Our High Schools Need Help . . .

By Margaret Spellings
Saturday, April 2, 2005; Page A21

Education has been front-page news and page-turning drama of late. To hear the media tell it, there is a new civil war going on between the federal government and the states. But the truth is that having this discussion is a healthy development and one I applaud.

At the heart of the story is the No Child Left Behind Act -- a law that asks one thing: that our public schools teach students to read and do math at grade level. It is imperative that we turn out young adults who can compete with the rest of the world in the global marketplace of ideas and talent.

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So why all the noise about No Child Left Behind, and why now? There's no question that the law has been revolutionary: It calls for accountability for increased student achievement. And as with any change, particularly one that affects some 3.5 million educators serving 50 million students, there will be a period of adjustment. But it continues to be the right policy at the right time.

There is indeed a compelling national interest in education. The federal government has a role to play. Just as the Brown v. Board of Education decision moved to end unequal education because of race, the federal government can now help ensure that states provide a quality education to every student.

Under No Child Left Behind, students and parents are given options. Thanks to the law's insistence on assessing all students regardless of their race or background, teachers and administrators have been able to find out which students are learning and which need extra help and attention. And if schools continue to underserve their customers, the law calls for intervention and assistance. The needs of the student, not the system, come first.

No Child Left Behind is the law of the land. My goal as secretary of education is to help states continue to implement it, and to stabilize and embed this positive change. I understand some aspects of the law have been more difficult to implement than others, which is why I have signaled a willingness to work with states to make it fit their unique local needs. That's why each and every state has developed its own accountability plan: No two states are alike, and neither are their plans.

But some bright lines must be drawn. Annual assessments are nonnegotiable, because what gets measured gets done. This is the heart of accountability. The data must also be reported by student group -- African Americans, Hispanics, those with special needs, etc. -- so that those who need the most help aren't hidden behind state or district-wide averages. Some states have asked for waivers from the law. Some have sought to exempt whole grades or student groups from annual assessments. Others have sought to keep some students' test scores under wraps. That is simply unacceptable. It undermines the very purpose of the law. Perhaps not coincidentally, some of these same states have the largest achievement gaps in the nation, with minority students lagging dozens of points -- whole years, really -- behind their white peers.

In states where the law has been embraced, it is working. Teachers, principals, superintendents, parents and children have all chosen to roll up their sleeves and meet the challenge. As a result, children are achieving, and the achievement gap in the early grades is closing. In those states, public confidence in public education is soaring.

Now we must expand the promise of No Child Left Behind to our high schools. Its principles of accountability, flexibility, choice and research-based practice can help restore value to the high school diploma, making it a ticket to success in the 21st century. There is a growing consensus behind high school reform. Never before have so many groups -- governors, business leaders, children's advocates -- been so united on the need to act.

I am heartened that so many states are seriously considering innovative ways to reform our high schools. But this must become a national effort. That's why President Bush has proposed a $1.5 billion High School Initiative to ensure that every student graduates prepared for college or the workforce. We need to encourage students to take challenging coursework, and to assess our high school students every year, so that teachers can intervene before a problem sets in and sets a student back for life.

Three years after the No Child Left Behind Act was signed, more children are learning and children are learning more. This law is a bipartisan expression of the fact that we as a nation no longer find it acceptable to let some children remain in the shadows, without the skills to achieve the American Dream. Instead of trying to go back to those days, we should go forward and take the next step. Let's work together, in the same bipartisan fashion as we did three years ago, to help our high school students.

The writer is U.S. secretary of education.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company