Superintendents Suggest Fixes For 'No Child'

(By Doug Corrance -- Getty Images)
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007

The superintendents of the Washington area's two largest school systems say national standards are needed to measure achievement among public school students, a sharp contrast to other educators who are asking that the federal government have less involvement in the schools, not more.

The support for national tests from the superintendents in Fairfax and Montgomery counties, as well as the superintendent and School Board of Arlington County, is one of the most surprising messages being sent to Congress by area educators hoping to influence efforts to revise the five-year-old No Child Left Behind law.

Interviews with Washington area school leaders and a review of their statements show them in sympathy with nationwide public school support for rating schools by individual student progress, giving more time to bring non-English-speaking students up to annual benchmarks, providing more freedom for parents and teachers to decide how much students with learning disabilities need to improve, and spending more federal dollars to improve teaching quality and increase instruction time.

But by supporting national testing and learning standards, a position that Congress has rejected in previous years, some Washington educators are giving new life to a movement whose most outspoken supporters have been academics and pundits, not school administrators.

"I've never figured out why in the world we wouldn't have a national education standard," said Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. "We have standards for toys and everything else."

Congress might vote on whether to revise No Child Left Behind this year. With criticism of the law ratcheting up, changes are likely.

Jack D. Dale, superintendent of Fairfax County schools, called the current system "incoherent, contradictory and inconsistent." Arlington's School Board, using an argument advanced by Superintendent Robert G. Smith, said No Child Left Behind "provides neither high consistent standards nor consistent measures for accountability."

Some local school leaders say they would like to expand the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally financed sampling of student progress, to create a national learning standard. Arlington officials suggest that a revised federal law include a much larger sample of students so that the achievement tests would be given to all school systems and every school. This year's test was given to about 700,000 students.

Dale wants to turn the No Child Left Behind system upside down. Instead of states creating individual tests and the federal government devising the sanctions and supports for low-scoring schools, he would prefer that the federal government provide the tests. Every school could see where it stood on a national scale, and each state could decide what to do to encourage improvement in low-performing schools.

The views of Dale, Smith and Weast are at odds with many in Congress, who agreed to the unprecedented federal intrusion into schools only because each state retained the power to create testing standards and determine to a great extent how many of its schools would miss the new learning targets. Supporters of a more nationalized system say their views are influenced by the difficulty in figuring out what works with so many different state standards.

What is left unsaid is that in part because of unusually high household incomes and education levels in such school systems as Fairfax and Montgomery's, students in those counties will look very good, on average, on any national scale. And students in poor districts in all likelihood will be at a disadvantage.

Local educators are also asking that annual school assessments focus on how much each child has improved, instead of how much this year's students improved as a group compared with last year's.

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