In Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences, Marc Fisher sees a good school valiantly holding out against a regime of rigid and unthinking testing ["Falls Church School Won't Teach to the Test," Metro, Oct. 12]. I see a rigid and unthinking journalist holding out against both the facts and what is arguably the most important education reform in a generation.

Fisher describes the "straitjacket" of the No Child Left Behind law labeling schools as "failures" if they "don't hit their numbers." But that's not what the law does. No Child Left Behind gives educators, parents, journalists and members of the public access to detailed data about how well schools are doing at the task of educating all groups of students in English and mathematics.

It is too bad that Fisher didn't avail himself of this data. If he had, he would have seen that, while Bailey's aggregate test scores are better than the statewide average, the performance of its low-income and Hispanic children -- student groups that make up a significant portion of Bailey's enrollment -- lag far behind their counterparts in the county and the state and even farther behind Bailey's white and non-poor students.

Nowhere does the law talk about "failure." Instead, the law speaks to the need for "school improvement." And despite notable improvements, particularly in its fifth-grade scores, Bailey's still has a great deal of work to do to eliminate the achievement gaps that separate its immigrant, low-income and Hispanic students from its more affluent and white students.

One area that needs attention at Bailey's is reading instruction. In the spring of 2002, 40 percent of Bailey's low-income students met state reading standards; by the spring of 2004, that percentage had dropped to 31 percent. For a school where roughly half the students are poor, this is a large step backward. But even this will not -- under No Child Left Behind -- slap a label of failure on this school. If Bailey's does not hit its numbers, the worst thing that will immediately happen is that the school may get additional dollars and technical assistance to help its teachers and administrators tackle an issue that must be of grave concern to them: the disappointing reading achievement levels of low-income students.

No Child Left Behind does not mean abandoning a rich, creative curriculum, nor does it mean shuttering the science lab or theater. It does mean that the principal of Bailey's, like many others across the country, must develop a plan to make sure all groups of students get the academic attention that they need to grasp and grapple with the information that they need to think, in the principal's words, "like scientists and historians."

-- Amy Wilkins


The writer is director of the Achievement