People who think the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind approach to school reform is almost mindlessly rigid like to point to schools such as Langley High in Northern Virginia or Bellaire in suburban Houston to make their point.

So it came as a bit of a surprise that Education Secretary Rod Paige would single out those two schools as evidence in support of the program.

Bellaire and Langley are, by virtually all measures, among the top public schools in America -- teeming with bright students, first-rate teachers, innovative programs and fawningly supportive parents.

But last spring, both fell short of NCLB's rigorous requirements. At least one subgroup at each of the schools failed to make "adequate yearly progress," and under the rules promulgated by the Department of Education, that meant the schools fell short of the mark.

"That's the problem with NCLB," Langley's principal, William Clendaniel, told me. "We are generally acknowledged to be one of the best schools in the country, and yet we got graded as failing. We were going to appeal this in some way, and I think we could have prevailed. But we wanted people to see the ridiculousness -- the lack of flexibility -- in the approach."

Paige would make two points. First, his department never classified Langley as "failing." It merely pointed out that at least one of the several subgroupings of students specified in the regulations fell short, meaning that the school was "in need of improvement." The subgroups are designated by economics, ethnicity, English-language proficiency and disability, among other categories. Clendaniel said Langley fell short with special-ed students.

But Paige's main point is that these supposedly outlandish examples prove the case.

"We've been under enormous pressure to change the NCLB legislation -- much of the pressure coming through members of Congress," he said. "I've taken the position of opposing any legislative change.

"Why? I have read the history of IDEA [the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act] several times, and I have read the discussion around the reauthorization legislation. And I am left with the belief that there has never been a serious political will to stick with these programs long enough to give them a chance to work. At the first sign of pain, they ask for waivers or legislative relief, or they sic their legislators on us. They always can find 2,050 reasons not to do it. I want to know: When are you going to do it?"

Paige said he has been willing to provide regulatory relief from particular problems, where he can do so without changing the law. He dismisses the criticism that much of what is required under NCLB amounts to "unfunded mandates." After all, states can avoid the mandate by giving up the funding that goes with it.

Where he refuses to yield an inch is on the idea of "disaggregating" the scores of various subgroups from schoolwide results. Many a school problem has been hidden under a blanket of "average" scores. That can be especially easy in schools where most students are high achievers because underachieving subgroups tend to get submerged in schoolwide numbers. That, says Paige, is why NCLB insists on making sure that each subgroup, and not just the overall student body, makes "adequate yearly progress." Without disaggregation, he says, there's no incentive to make it happen.

Langley's Clendaniel -- surprise! -- agrees. "We were upset to be identified as a failing school, when we knew what terrific work we are doing. But I have to say that the next year, we did go out and remediate the heck out of those [special-ed] kids. The teachers took it personally, do a lot on their own time. And now we don't have any underperforming subgroups."

Clendaniel may not be a convert to NCLB, but the controversial program does, he admits, "make you pay attention to individual students more closely than you might have before."

To the embattled Paige, that must sound like a testimonial.

willrasp@washpost.com