Obama seeks to make No Child Left Behind more flexible

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 7:15 PM

North Chevy Chase Elementary School, with a demanding curriculum, strong faculty and high student test scores, meets nobody's definition of a failure. Nobody's, that is, except the federal government's.

Last year, the Montgomery County school failed to make what the government calls "adequate yearly progress," even though 91 percent of its students passed the state math test and 96 percent passed in reading. The school fell short for the first time because a handful of students with disabilities missed the target in math.

Confusion over the ratings of schools such as this one and thousands of others nationwide is fueling President Obama's drive to rewrite the nine-year-old No Child Left Behind law. In his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, Obama called for a version that is "more flexible and focused on what's best for our kids."

Senior congressional Republicans and Democrats said Wednesday they would join forces with the president to fix what they call numerous flaws in the law.

No Child Left Behind, which launched an unprecedented expansion of standardized testing, was widely acclaimed when it was enacted in 2002 under President George W. Bush. There were pledges that schools would get serious about closing achievement gaps, while helping every single child reach grade level in reading and math.

Now, the United States may be on the verge of another cycle of reform as schools hit an achievement ceiling. Lawmakers are calling the law rigid, punitive and unrealistic.

"We need to get away from Washington announcing whether schools are passing or failing," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

"We're getting to the point where we're going to have almost every school in the country failing," said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "We're going to have to change that."

GOP support for key portions of Obama's education agenda signaled that a bipartisan revision of the law is possible, although obstacles remain.

Some Democrats are wary of Obama's efforts to weed out bad teachers and financially reward good ones. Some Republicans are so skeptical of the federal role in education that they want to abolish the Education Department. There may be difficult debates as well over vouchers to pay for private school in the District and elsewhere.

One of the biggest challenges for the president and his allies will be to create an accountability framework that is flexible and rigorous. Obama wants to replace the federal metric of adequate yearly progress, known as AYP, with more flexible measures that reward student growth. Yet it remains unclear how the government would force improvement of low-performing schools while getting out of the way of those that excel.

Under No Child Left Behind, all schools are required to make progress toward a goal of 100 percent proficiency in 2014 for students tested in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. The law requires progress not only overall but also among groups of students sorted by race, ethnicity and factors such as whether they are learning English as a second language or have disabilities.

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