Few Students Switching Schools Under 'No Child' Law

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2007

This fall, about 170 Northern Virginia children left elementary schools that fell short of academic goals for schools with better math and reading test scores. Most of their classmates stayed put.

The students who transferred exercised an option under the federal No Child Left Behind law: Children in schools that struggle year after year can move to better-performing schools.

But Northern Virginia's experience mirrors the regional and national picture five years after the law took effect. Only about 1.2 percent of 5.4 million eligible children nationwide are taking advantage of the federal offer.

Mayya Saab, who has a son in fifth grade at McNair Elementary School in Fairfax County, decided to keep him there even though the school's rating from the state meant that he was allowed to transfer.

Her son is "doing great," she said. "I didn't see a need to go somewhere else."

As Congress considers renewing the law, the low transfer rate is fueling debate over the future of school choice. Supporters of the provision want to expand options for students and improve efforts to inform parents about it, but some critics say the attention and funding should be used to help ensure that all schools are up to par.

Congress's decision will affect U.S. schools that are finding it increasingly tough to move toward a goal of having every child proficient in reading and math by 2014.

This year, the number of Northern Virginia schools that didn't meet academic goals nearly doubled from last year, rising from 76 to 146. Certain schools that miss the mark for two or more years in a row must offer children a chance to attend another school. Transfers in Northern Virginia were up slightly this fall, from 130 last year.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has said that students in poor-performing schools deserve a chance to switch to one with higher scores. Last week, the Education Department released a guidebook to help schools inform parents about choice. The Bush administration also wants to increase options for families by offering more scholarships to disadvantaged children in poor-performing schools who want to attend private school or a public school in another district. Critics of such voucher programs say they take needed tax dollars from public schools.

"I think the philosophy is that families shouldn't be obligated to enroll in a school when it's going through an improvement program," said Morgan Brown, a U.S. assistant deputy education secretary. "They shouldn't have to wait until that's done."

In Northern Virginia and elsewhere, many families choose not to transfer because they are happy with their children's schools. But in some urban areas, there are not enough open desks in high-performing schools.

This year, 242 students in the District transferred under the federal law, officials said. Data on transfer students in Prince George's County were unavailable, but in years past, the number has been several hundred. No Montgomery County schools were required to offer choice this year under the law.

The No Child Left Behind law, which aims to identify blocs of struggling students and allow schools to pinpoint areas that need improvement, requires annual reading and math tests in grades three through eight and one in high school. It also requires schools and districts to show progress in scores. Subsets of students -- including minorities, those with disabilities, those with limited English skills and those from low-income families -- must also show gains.

The federal law also requires certain schools that fail to meet standards for three or more years to provide tutoring. Virginia is among several states participating in a pilot program that allows some schools flagged as needing improvement to provide tutoring before offering parents the transfer option.

Research is not clear on whether switching schools is an effective way to boost student performance, education experts said. A study this year by the Rand Corp. found no measurable effect on achievement among students who transferred. But the researchers said they did not examine a large group of students.

"In the way that choice is being exercised today, there are no big positive effects," said Andrew Porter, dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. "Having said all that, it's extremely difficult research to do."

U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House education committee, has proposed changing the law so that only schools with many children in academic trouble would have to offer transfers. He said schools that narrowly miss targets could boost instruction and remediation for students.

"Under the law today, schools with specific problems in specific areas are treated the same as schools with more fundamental, widespread problems. This doesn't make sense," Miller said in a statement. "Schools with specific problems in specific areas should be allowed to use instructional interventions that are appropriate to their needs. Schools that are struggling across the board must receive more intensive support and assistance."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company