No Child Left Behind

January 08, 2004

ON THE second anniversary of sweeping changes in the laws governing prekindergarten through 12th-grade teaching and testing, the nation's public schools are today like wayfarers studying a new road map.

They know where they are, and where they need to go, to meet the No Child Left Behind Act's 2014 arbitrary deadline by which all children should be learning on grade level. They're still trying to figure out how to get there.

Maryland, for example, had the advantage of a well-trod history with school accountability programs. In retrospect, adopting the federally mandated tests and adapting state standards has been far easier up to now than will be the challenges that lie ahead: translating mountains of newly required and collected data on individual student progress into successful classroom practices, and halting long-established trends of low achievement for children who are poor, minorities, non-English speakers or disabled.

Though NCLB can be faulted for various flaws, and whether it is adequately funded can be continuously debated, this is its bedrock: It gives school districts a magnifying glass and a compass, and demands their best efforts to offer the highest-quality education more equitably.

To meet the federal standards, Maryland schools must now do more to ensure that their black students reach proficient levels of achievement in math, and that their poorest and limited-English-speaking students improve in reading. Special education students are not meeting the standards in either subject.

The revised 2003 results, just out, show 511 schools preliminarily listed as not meeting the state standards in one or more of the measured categories of student achievement; of these, 138 schools with prior troubles have received the designation of "not making progress," which requires districts to take action.

Election years are rarely the best time to reform reforms: The once-bipartisan support for No Child Left Behind has fallen to bickering, with states' rights advocates opposing the imposition of uniform testing and standards, Democrats assailing the program's underfunding, and the president making whistle-stops at high-performing schools.

When the dust settles, lawmakers need to revisit sections of the law to set more realistic expectations and assistance for schools in the areas of special education and English as a second language. The current law is not structured to help schools best address those needs.

Meanwhile, lawmakers must remember that statistics don't learn or teach. No Child Left Behind's greatest potential lies in its call for every child to have highly qualified teachers; the nation's schools need support to deliver on that potential.

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