SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Thousands of schools across the nation are responding to the reading and math testing requirements laid out in No Child Left Behind, President Bush's signature education law, by reducing class time spent on other subjects and, for some low-proficiency students, eliminating it.
Schools from Vermont to California are increasing -- in some cases tripling -- the class time that low-proficiency students spend on reading and math, mainly because the federal law, signed in 2002, requires annual exams in only those subjects and punishes schools that fall short of rising bench marks.
The changes appear to principally affect schools and students who test below grade level.
The intense focus on the two basic skills is a sea change in American instructional practice, with many schools that once offered rich curriculums systematically trimming courses like social studies, science and art. A nationwide survey by a nonpartisan group that is to be made public Tuesday indicates that the practice, known as narrowing the curriculum, has become standard procedure in many communities.
The survey, by the Center on Education Policy, found that since the passage of the federal law, 71 percent of the nation's 15,000 school districts had reduced the hours of instructional time spent on history, music and other subjects to open up more time for reading and math.
"Narrowing the curriculum has clearly become a nationwide pattern," said Jack Jennings, the president of the center, which is based in Washington.
At Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High School in Sacramento, about 150 of the school's 885 students spend five of their six class periods on math, reading and gym, leaving one 55-minute period for all other subjects.
About 125 of the school's lowest-performing students are barred from taking anything except math, reading and gym, a measure that Samuel Harris, the school's principal, said was severe but necessary. "When you look at a kid and you know he can't read, that's a tough call you've got to make," Harris said.
Some authorities, including Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, say the federal law's focus on basic skills is raising achievement in thousands of low-performing schools. Other experts warn that by reducing the academic menu, schools risk giving bored teenagers the message that school means repetition and drilling.
"Only two subjects? What a sadness," said Thomas Sobol, an education professor at Columbia Teachers College and a former New York state education commissioner. "That's like a violin student who's only permitted to play scales, nothing else, day after day, scales, scales, scales. They'd lose their zest for music."
But officials in Cuero, Texas, have adopted an intensive approach and said it is helping them meet the federal requirements. They have doubled the time that all sixth-graders and some seventh- and eighth-graders devote to reading and math, and have reduced it for other subjects.
"When you only have so many hours per day and you're behind in some area that's being hammered on, you have to work on that," said Henry Lind, the schools superintendent. "It's like basketball. If you can't make layups, then you've got to work on layups."