Congress sets sights on No Child Left Behind

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ Staff Writer

For Clovis special-education teacher Lisa Gershon, the coming weeks will be a lesson in frustration.

Students in her classroom and in public schools across New Mexico will begin New Mexico Standards Based Assessments on Feb. 26. The tests, required under the No Child Left Behind Act, will continue through March 23.

Gershon must stand by as her students — many diagnosed with autism, developmental delays and learning disabilities — struggle to comprehend the test. She is allowed to read math questions to her students, but she is forbidden to do so for reading questions.

“You get a bunch of sighs and deep breaths (from students),” Gershon said.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, special-education students must be tested at their grade level, despite the fact many receive special education because they cannot perform at grade level.

“It’s completely unfair to them,” Gershon said. “They have all made huge gains and progress this year, and that will not be documented anywhere.”

This year, lawmakers are scheduled to rewrite the five-year-old law, which aims to close achievement gaps and have all students reading and doing math on grade level by 2014.

Up for debate is how to fairly test special-education and immigrant students. Those groups of students consistently perform below par on the tests.
When certain groups of students fail to meet specific goals, entire schools can be labeled as needing improvement. They then could face steps such as having to replace teachers and principals.

In Clovis, six schools failed to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) standards in 2006-2007. Of those six, five failed because of below-par performance among special-education students. Of those six, four also failed because of below-par performance among English Language Learners, economically disadvantaged students or both.

All six schools are labeled as needing improvement.

Parents, teachers and state policymakers are among those pushing for more flexibility in the testing of special-education students and immigrants.

“Expecting children who have severe learning disabilities to perform at the same level as their age-alike peers negates the meaning of special education,” Clovis Schools Superintendent Rhonda Seidenwurm said.

“Likewise,” she added, “we are asking children who have been in this country as little as three years to be able to master not just conversational English but academic English. It’s a huge disservice to English Language Learners to imply that they are somehow deficient when they are not able to perform with academic proficiency in a language to which they have been exposed for so short a time.”

Portales Schools Superintendent Randy Fowler said he also supports NCLB revisions for special education and ELL students.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D.-N.M., who serves on the committee that sculpted the federal education law in 2002 — the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions — will have an integral role in rewriting the No Child Left Behind Act, according to Jude McCartin, the senator’s spokeswoman.

She said the senator will push for ways to improve the law, and will not stop with improvements for just ELL and special-education students.

One of the major issues with the law has been lack of funding, McCartin said. Since its implementation in 2002, NCLB has been underfunded by $70 billion, she said.
Bingaman wants that to change.

He also wants the law to address staggering high-school dropout rates and teacher effectiveness, and measure student progress in cohorts. That would allow schools to measure the progress of individual students as they progress from grade to grade.
“Generally, he (Bingaman) believes it (NCLB) was a very important step for education, but there are some problems with it, clearly,” McCartin said.

The No Child Left Behind law requires annual testing in reading and math in third grade through eighth grade and once in high school. Advocates and critics of the law caution against loosening the rules too much, and abandoning its basic tenet to leave no child behind.

Roughly 10 percent of special-education students — those with the most severe disabilities — take alternative tests under the law. These are easier than the regular exams. But critics say the tests still are too hard for some children and do not reflect lessons typically taught to severely disabled students.

In addition to the 10 percent who get the special test, Education Department officials are considering allowing about one-fifth of the rest of the special-education students to take alternative tests. These tests are expected to be harder than the ones given to the first group but easier than the typical tests.

In New Mexico, 15 percent of all schools that did not make AYP did so solely because of the performance of special-education students, and 4 percent because of the performance of English Language Learners, according to McCartin.

“It’s not just special-education students or English Language Learners who are the problem,” McCartin said.

There is a debate about whether that overall total — about 30 percent of special-education students — is the right proportion of students to single out and whether states should be able to set such policies on their own.

Similarly, there is disagreement over how to test students learning English as a second language.

The government exempts students enrolled in U.S. schools from taking reading tests for less than a year. After that, these students have to be tested.

The law says students can take the test in their native language for up to three years. States, however, have been slow to develop tests in other languages.

Critics say children cannot be expected to be proficient in reading until they have mastered English, which generally takes several years.

One proposal expected to be considered would give schools credit if their students, including those with disabilities or those who are learning English, make strides but fall short of a specific goal.

AP Education Writer Nancy Zuckerbrod contributed to this report.