Long overdue

March 03, 2004

AN IMMIGRANT family speaking no English enrolls a child in school just days after arriving in America, and just weeks before federally required testing begins. How well can the new student be expected to score on tests of reading or English, and should the score count toward school progress ratings?

On this, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act originally made about as much sense to educators as the test booklet did to that child: The scores counted all around. Here was a case where too-rigid, one-size education testing mandates would not fit all. Yet it would take two years of protests from educators, governors, legislators and even presidential candidates to finally convince the administration.

Long-overdue changes, just adopted, will allow students who don't speak English a year to polish their skills before their reading tests will count toward "adequate yearly progress." To the 5.5 million students nationwide who speak limited English - including more than 2,600 in rapidly diversifying Montgomery County - we say: Hurrah! Ura! Viva los estudiantes!

We've no bouquets, however, for U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who last week called the nation's largest teachers union a "terrorist" organization. Perhaps he'd like to control the rules of engagement, but his energies should foremost be focused on fixing No Child Left Behind's regulatory flaws and enforcement gaps.

At least a dozen state legislatures, including Virginia's, now are challenging its sweeping mandates. Some, such as Utah's, are weighing the consequences of ignoring these and forgoing their federal aid. Many have noted that while federal funding for schools has increased, it still falls short of meeting the burdens the law created.

NCLB's premise is the right one: Hold schools accountable for every student's progress, struggling learners included. However, its originators apparently neglected to apply the kind of research and expertise that they're insisting states and schools must use. And for too long the administration gave legitimate requests for amendments no more due than complaints from backpedalers and shirkers. They should recognize the difference.

The testing rules for limited-English speakers are just one example of this. Specialists say that acquiring the fluency needed for academic success takes five to seven years for students who arrive unable to speak English, and depends on such variables as poverty and the quality of prior schooling. NCLB didn't much help with tools or resources to address these students' needs, but had policy-makers relied on education experts, the testing rules might have been more sound from the beginning.

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