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Number of Schools Failing to Make Federal Standards Likely to Jump

Education policy experts, in fact, expect more schools to be declared “academically unacceptable” this year, even in states where student performance has shown significant strides.

“As the No Child Left Behind time frame moves forward, states are going to have a harder time keeping pace with its expectations,” Scott Young, an analyst for Communities for Quality Education, which is organizing grassroots opposition to the federal law, told Stateline.org recently.

In the first few years of the law’s existence, states were required to establish a baseline level of academic standards that would serve as the measuring stick for how the public schools were performing. Once approved by the federal Department of Education, each state would have to demonstrate that each year more of its students were achieving the proficiency standard, including students with disabilities, those for whom English is a second language and others.

States must show each year that all different groups are progressing toward the federally required goal of all students meeting the proficiency requirements by 2014. These statements, known as Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, reports, are the measuring stick by which each state’s performance is gauged and both funding and penalties are doled out.

And so in several states, the number of schools deemed failing are up sharply this year. Louisiana, for example, more than doubled the number of schools labeled inadequate according to the federal law, going from 78 in 2004 to 175 in 2005, despite an overall improvement in student test scores. Numbers are up dramatically in other states, too, doubling in New Mexico and Wyoming and tripling in Texas.

For these schools the clock is now ticking. They will need to get their students to perform better or face a series of steps in the future. If a school fails to show progress:

— two years in a row, students can transfer to higher-performing schools. The school must pay for the transfers using some of its federal Title 1 money for low-income students;

— three years in a row, free tutoring services must be offered in addition to transfers;

— four years in a row, the district can replace school staff, if needed, and implement a new curriculum in addition to the tutors and the transfers; or

— five years in a row, the district can get rid of staff and restructure the school, possibly converting it to a charter school.

In early August, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings acknowledged that many states were asking for some sort of recognition for increasing results, but not at the rate mandated in the law.

“The department is considering the idea of a growth model, in which schools would get credit for progress over time,” Spellings said, but she was quick to add, “But I must be clear — to have a sound growth model system, you must have annual data. And students must be making progress that leads to proficiency as required by law.”

Despite rumblings from Washington of some increased flexibility, the increasing pressure on states to meet federally mandated levels of performance has also continued to fuel growing legal and legislative opposition to the law in many states.

“There is a palpable increase in the level of dissatisfaction that I see, but it’s not being translated into legislation in Congress,” says Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy in Washington. “There’s really a disjuncture here between a growing dissatisfaction and the lack of a political response.”

Connecticut, Utah and Colorado have all either filed lawsuits or passed state laws that attempt to place their state’s academic standards above those of the federal government. A report this week by a Massachusetts advocacy group found similar fights brewing in as least five other “hot spots” — Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey and Virginia. The survey by the Civil Society Institute also found that as many as 21 states are weighing some kind of legislation targeting the law.

The continuing and possibly expanding state revolts come as federal officials hail the success of NCLB.

“Scores are rising, the achievement gap is closing, and No Child Left Behind is working,” Spellings said on Aug. 5.

And many states have demonstrated progress toward the NCLB goals. In Montana, for example, the bulk of the state’s rural districts improved their scores and moved off of the academic watch list.

“I think the system did what it was supposed to do and that’s get people’s attention about accountability for students,” Rodney Simpson, a superintendent in Fort Benton, told the Great Falls Tribune.

This mix of improving test scores, tougher standards and brewing anger in some states could spell a tumultuous year for the No Child Left Behind law both in the nation’s classrooms and in many of its state courtrooms.

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