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Most schools could face 'failing' label under No Child Left Behind, Duncan says

In the House, the new Republican majority is still canvassing the school-reform views of a freshman class that is highly skeptical of the government's role in education. That could pose one of the largest obstacles to passing a bill.

But House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who helped write No Child Left Behind, has largely refrained from criticizing Obama's reform proposals. On Wednesday, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), the education panel's chairman, praised Duncan's efforts. "Although we may not always see eye to eye," Kline said in the hearing, "you and I share a belief that the current system is broken and in desperate need of repair."

Obama's plan calls for schools to be rated on how much academic growth their students achieve. Those that excel would be rewarded, the vast majority in the middle would be given more flexibility to choose strategies to improve, and the lowest performers would face a stricter federal mandate to adopt a stringent school turnaround program.

The No Child Left Behind brand has deteriorated since Bush left office in 2009, but many educators agree that the law's focus on standardized testing and minority achievement gaps shined a critical spotlight on problems that public schools have long sought to avoid.

There is also widespread agreement that the typical school will never attain the ideal enshrined in the legislation - that all students should become proficient in math and reading.

Under the law, schools must test students in reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school. Those scores, plus attendance and graduation rates, are used to determine whether a school is making what the government calls "adequate yearly progress" toward a goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

The legislation requires schools to show that various groups of students - including the poor, racial minorities and those with disabilities - are on track. Schools that miss the targets face a series of sanctions, the most severe of which are a state takeover or a shutdown. The law, however, grants states much leeway to meet targets, including a method known as "safe harbor," which rewards schools for making a minimum degree of progress.

The Center on Education Policy reported that 28 percent of schools nationwide missed theNo Child benchmarks in 2007, 35 percent in 2008 and 33 percent in 2009. The center estimates that at least 37 percent fell short last year. In the Washington area, the center found that the failure rate in 2009 was 23 percent for Maryland, 28 percent for Virginia and 75 percent for the District.

Charles Barone, a former congressional aide who helped draft the 2002 law, called Duncan's projection "fiction." Barone tracks federal policy for a group called Democrats for Education Reform, which is generally in accord with Obama's policies on education changes.

"He's creating a bogeyman that doesn't exist," Barone said of Duncan. "Our fear is that they are taking it to a new level of actually manufacturing a new statistic - a 'Chicken Little' statistic that is not true - just to get a law passed. It severely threatens their credibility."

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