Education Secretary Margaret Spellings will announce new guidelines on implementing the No Child Left Behind law today, showing greater flexibility toward states that already have strong student accountability systems in place, according to Bush administration officials.
The officials said that the changes will be outlined at a meeting in Mount Vernon this morning between Spellings and state school chiefs. Spellings invited the education officials to Washington as part of an effort to defuse a grass-roots rebellion against the law, the centerpiece of the Bush administration's education reform program.
The changes are designed to make it easier for school districts to avoid federal sanctions under the 2002 law by sharply increasing the number of students granted special accommodations in standardized tests because of disabilities. Some of the sanctions envisioned under the law, including a provision that would allow children in failing schools to transfer to better ones, are also likely to be reviewed or relaxed.
Over the past two years, about 30 state legislatures have adopted resolutions critical of the No Child Left Behind law, attacking it as an underfunded federal mandate that undermines states' rights. Since her appointment as education secretary in December, Spellings has repeatedly said that she wants to find "common-sense" solutions to the problems.
Former education secretary Roderick R. Paige agreed to changes last year that made it easier for states to meet the federal targets. Individual states also have begun negotiating deals with the Education Department to address their concerns, while preserving the goal of universal student proficiency in math and reading by 2014.
Education analysts said the changes would provide a more formal mechanism for rewarding states that have developed their own accountability systems. States such as Virginia, which introduced standardized tests in 1998 in an attempt to raise student achievement, have complained that the federal standards are frequently at odds with their own.
The Education Department declined to provide details of the new rules in advance of today's meeting. But in private briefings for congressional staffers and others, officials said the changes were designed to put greater emphasis on outcomes than on compliance with the law.
According to people who have heard the briefings, the department is considering relaxing the law's school-choice provisions, which permit parents to take their children out of schools that fail to meet federal guidelines and enroll them in another school. According to a recent study by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank, only 1 percent of eligible students are benefiting from school choice because few slots are available in better schools.
One change demanded by many states, including Virginia, that is now under consideration by the department would permit states to offer students at underperforming schools extra tutoring services before offering them transfers.
Scott Young, an analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, which has sharply criticized the implementation of No Child Left Behind, said the proposed changes appeared to be a step in the right direction. But he also expressed concern that the attempt to distinguish between "good" and "bad" states could create new problems.
The most dramatic change being considered by Spellings is a tripling in the number of special-education students who are provided with some form of extra accommodation in standardized tests. Currently, school districts are allowed to provide alternative tests for 1 percent of all students, permitting those with the greatest learning disabilities to be tested at their instructional level rather than at grade level.
The new policy would allow accommodations for an additional 2 percent of children, which would make it easier for schools to meet the requirement that they demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" in student test scores.