The 'No Child' Law's Flexible Enforcer

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, center, and Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick talk to Camille Alexander and Colton Witt at Guilford Elementary School in Columbia.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, center, and Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick talk to Camille Alexander and Colton Witt at Guilford Elementary School in Columbia. "This is a balancing act, no doubt about it," Spellings says of her enforcement of the No Child Left Behind Act. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

She chafes at the deliberate pace of Virginia's compliance with federal testing requirements. She admires Maryland's school superintendent. And she touts educational experiments in the District but says D.C. public schools need "a lot of work."

Those are quick takes on regional school affairs from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. On the issue that absorbs educators nationwide -- No Child Left Behind -- Spellings has sought to project a new pragmatism in her first year in the Cabinet.

As a White House aide who helped craft the law, Spellings backed strict enforcement in the first three years after its enactment in 2002. As education secretary in President Bush's second term, her mantra now is flexibility. Her wheeling and dealing has mollified some -- but not all -- critics who call the law unworkable. Some backers of the law, however, worry that she might be ceding too much ground.

Spellings has eased rules for testing disabled students nationwide, granted regulatory relief to Gulf Coast school systems battered by hurricanes, tinkered with federal rules for tutoring programs to help students in some struggling schools, given states a one-year extension on a deadline for teacher quality and opened the door to a new way to rate schools, based on growth in test scores.

"It was, in my opinion, absolutely right to take a hard line and to take an aggressive approach on implementing No Child Left Behind in the beginning," Spellings said last week. "Of course it was. But should we learn as we go? That's equally true."

In one politically sensitive case, Spellings gave Texas a one-year reprieve on testing disabled students. The agreement allowed her home state -- also Bush's -- special rules for 5 percent of tested students, instead of a 3 percent cap granted other states. The department also fined Texas nearly $900,000 for noncompliance with the law, although Spellings subsequently relented when Texas absorbed huge expenses after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Texas officials said they were moving as fast as possible to lower a special-education testing cap that had been 8 to 9 percent. Spellings said an immediate 3 percent cap in Texas would have been virtually impossible. "I'm a reasonable person," she said.

Spellings said she would not waver on holding states to a target that many educators call virtually unattainable: proficiency for all students in reading and mathematics by 2014. As that date -- 12 years distant when Bush signed the law -- looms closer every year, it poses an ever-tougher challenge for public schools that must make adequate yearly progress for all groups of students or face consequences.

"This is a balancing act, no doubt about it," Spellings said. She added: "The things that I'm paying most attention to are what are the results and how are states doing toward those goals."

In a one-hour interview on the seventh floor of the Education Department, Spellings fielded questions on education law that she joked were of high interest mainly to "a wonk." But the school accountability drive that Spellings leads profoundly affects students, parents and teachers across the United States.

Case in point: Virginia's expansion of reading and math testing this year to cover all grades from 3 to 8. Previously, Virginia tested only in grades 3, 5 and 8. Now, meeting a federal deadline, it is adding tests in grades 4, 6 and 7. "Finally," Spellings said, "at the very last, last minute." Other states, including Maryland, moved more rapidly. Virginia officials say slower implementation will help ensure better-quality tests.

Spellings, who has a daughter in a Fairfax County middle school, said she will be "thrilled, as a mother," to see a full battery of Virginia tests after years of "not seeing those assessments coming home in my own child's backpack." She added: "I want as much information as I can get about the quality of my child's school."

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