The Bush administration has begun to ease some key rules for the controversial No Child Left Behind law, opening the door to a new way to rate schools, granting a few urban systems permission to provide federally subsidized tutoring and allowing certain states more time to meet teacher-quality requirements.
The Education Department's actions could signal a new phase for school improvement efforts nearly four years after the law's enactment. Taken together, these actions amount to a major response to critics who have called No Child Left Behind rigid and unworkable. They also help the administration combat efforts to amend the law in Congress.
The latest shift, announced Friday by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, is an experiment allowing as many as 10 states to try "growth models" for determining whether schools make adequate yearly progress. Such models could enable states to credit schools for the academic growth of individual students even if their test scores fall short of state standards.
"It's a much more realistic measure of student performance," said Jack O'Connell, California's superintendent of public instruction. "It gives every school, every year, a shot at success."
The current rating system, much debated in education circles, centers on whether all groups of students in a given school meet standards.
The Education Department plans to send details about the initiative to states today. Maryland officials said they were studying whether to apply. Virginia education spokesman Charles Pyle said the state would not qualify because of limits in its testing program in recent years. It was unclear whether D.C. public schools would qualify or apply; a school system spokeswoman had no information.
Local educators often vent frustration with the law because many schools show overall gains on test scores but fall short in No Child Left Behind ratings. These schools can face significant penalties if they fail to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP. Some schools that repeatedly fall short are required to allow transfers to better-performing schools and, if they aren't turned around, eventually could face state takeover.
Bradbury Heights Elementary School in Prince George's County and near Southeast Washington is a case in point. It has failed to make AYP three straight years. But its scores in the last round of Maryland's reading and mathematics tests rose substantially in grades 3 through 6. Similar examples abound in Maryland, Virginia and the District.
"If we're talking about labeling schools," said Bradbury Heights Principal Denise Lynch, "there does need to be a rating system in place that would be more accurate and give the community a better picture of how their school is perceived."
In California, just 56 percent of 9,200 public schools made AYP in the past year. But the state found that four out of every five schools made significant gains.
The nation's largest teachers union, a consistent critic of the law, praised Friday's development. National Education Association President Reg Weaver said the department had heeded "the calls of millions of educators for a 'growth model' that truly reflects the great progress we are making in the classroom."
Spellings said she would not compromise on essential principles. Foremost, she said, is ensuring that all students are tested in reading and mathematics from grades 3 through 8, and once in high school, with results reported separately for racial and ethnic minorities, disabled students and other groups. The law's twin goals are to close achievement gaps and ensure that all students reach proficiency by 2014.
"A growth model is not a way around accountability standards," Spellings said Friday in Richmond.
In recent months, Spellings has shown flexibility in other key regulations. She granted New York public schools a waiver to allow them to provide free tutoring to low-income students even though several areas of the city's massive school system are deemed in need of improvement. Ordinarily, the law would bar such areas from providing the subsidized tutoring.
Boston and Chicago have received similar exemptions. Virginia won another that allows Alexandria, Stafford County and two other school divisions to provide tutoring to students in struggling schools before the systems are required to offer a transfer to another school.
Responding to another widespread complaint, the department is also working to ease testing regulations for disabled students who receive special education.
And on Oct. 21, Spellings issued a major pronouncement on teacher quality. The law requires states to put in motion plans to have highly qualified teachers in all core academic classes by the end of this school year. Such teachers have at least a bachelor's degree, full state certification and demonstrated knowledge of their academic subjects.
States have scrambled to meet the requirement, but some still fall short. Maryland reports that a quarter of its classes are not staffed by a highly qualified teacher. In Virginia, year-old data show that 5.5 percent of classes didn't meet the standard. (Teacher quality rules vary widely from state to state.)
In a letter to state education officials, Spellings wrote that she would not curtail federal funds for states that fall short if they can show they have made a "good-faith effort" to meet the teacher-quality standard. States that met certain requirements would be eligible for a one-year waiver, she wrote. Maryland officials said they would apply. Pyle said Virginia may do so as well.