Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

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Senator Kelley Weighs in on NCLB

No Child Left Behind adjustments needed

A bill to opt out of the federal government's version of No Child Left Behind has been moving through the Minnesota Senate. Its chief author, Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, said that it's time for states to quit approaching federal education officials on bended knee and to now demand changes.

"It's time to say this doesn't make sense," he said.

St. Paul Superintendent Pat Harvey reviewed Kelley's proposals that would give Minnesota education policy-makers more flexibility in meeting the demands of NCLB. She agreed with all of them, adding that when educators disagree with some parts of NCLB, it doesn't mean they want to avoid the work it requires.

Instead, they want to do the work well. She believes that today's version of the federal act is too punitive if an entire school can be labeled as not making adequate progress because of the performance of a subgroup.

"All of us agree that if five students aren't getting what they need, we all have to work on their improvement," she said. "But five kids shouldn't make an entire school fail."

NCLB relies heavily on annual testing in reading and math, expects that all children reach their grade level by 2014, and divides kids into subgroups according to income, race, English language ability and special education needs.

The law shines a bright light on the academic achievement of minority or impoverished children, for example. The way achievement is measured, however, reflects more on the school than the individual children. That's why Harvey objects to labeling a school as inadequate because of the inability of five children from a subgroup to show "adequate yearly progress," especially since the subgroups change every year. Rather than track yearly improvement, the federal law compares each class of third-graders with the previous year's class of third-graders. Wouldn't it make more sense to follow the academic progress of the same children from year to year?

It's that lack of sense that Kelley bristles at. If 10 Hispanic children do poorly in reading, their school might be labeled as failing. Say the next year those children show remarkable improvement, but seven English-language learners fall behind in English lessons. The school stays on the "needs improvement" list.

"I am not saying immigrants can't succeed," he said. "I am saying a one-size-fits-all rule for how to determine how kids perform at their full potential is an impossible task. Every community is different."

The St. Louis Park School District, for example, has received an influx of Russian immigrants. The kids are from an industrialized country with a written language. The Hopkins and St. Paul districts have received many Somali students who might never have seen a book, much less a written word. Holding the Somali children to the same standard as the Russian children is illogical, Kelley said.

His bill would revoke the contract the state made with the federal Education Department on NCLB. The state would then judge academic progress on a number of measures including testing, rather than today's testing focus. Sanctions for schools showing "inadequate progress" of special education children would be dropped, as well as for those whose student subgroups test below proficiency for at least two consecutive years.

One of the more dramatic measures in this bill is to basically thumb the state's nose toward federal funding provided through NCLB participation, and come up with an amount equal to that funding from the state. The federal government's position is, we'll pay if you play. Minnesota's position would be, thanks but no thanks.

Other states have stepped forward to challenge NCLB, including Utah, Connecticut, Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, Virginia and Vermont.

I've listed only a few odd quirks of the federal law. Perhaps the oddest is the requirement that special education children meet the same "proficiency" levels as regular students. If the kids with cognitive impairments could succeed in regular classes, they would be there to start with.

Kelley's proposal lights a fire under a persistent problem that will only grow with time. The intent of the federal law is good, and few argue with the importance of meeting the needs of all children. But the focus should be the child, not just the test, subgroup or school.

Write Locke at dlocke@pioneerpress.com or 345 Cedar St., St. Paul, MN 55101.