- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

Education Secretary Rod Paige yesterday announced that states would be given added flexibility to meet testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

In order to meet the requirement that 95 percent of all public school students be tested each year for reading and mathematics proficiency, schools will be permitted to omit students from the count who have “a significant medical emergency” that causes absence on test days, the secretary said.

Also, in years when the count of tested students falls below 95 percent, schools may average test-participation rates over three years in order to meet the requirement to document “adequate yearly progress” of students in reading and math, he said.

Mr. Paige said he approved the new testing rule because many small schools with fewer than 30 students in various subgroups could not meet the 95 percent requirement.

Those schools were experiencing substantial “heartburn,” he said, because the absence of only one or two students on test day caused them to be labeled as “low-performing” under the education law’s “adequate yearly progress” measure.

However, Mr. Paige said no other changes in enforcement of the school reform law were under consideration, and that a request of 14 state school chiefs to relax other accountability provisions of the law would require a congressional change that the administration opposes.

“The law needs to be given an opportunity to work,” Mr. Paige said. “It is the heart and soul of the law to assess all students. … It is not only absolutely reasonable, it should be expected. This is something we must do as a nation.”

In Orlando, Fla., yesterday, first lady Laura Bush compared critics of the education law to segregationists, citing the 1954 Supreme Court case that struck down “separate but equal” schools.

“At the time of Brown v. Board of education, some people thought black children didn’t deserve to be in the same classroom as white children. … Now today, there are still some people who believe some children can’t achieve high standards,” said Mrs. Bush, a former Texas schoolteacher and librarian. “No Child Left Behind is based on the premise that all children must have access to high-quality schools regardless of their skin color, their disability or their ZIP code.”

Since early December, Mr. Paige has announced four changes to relax the law’s more stringent requirements on testing and “highly qualified teachers.”

A rule for disabled students, issued on Dec. 9, permits states and school districts to count proficient reading and math scores of alternative special-education achievement standards for children with “the most significant cognitive disabilities.”

On Feb. 20, the Education Department exempted more than 5.5 million immigrant students with limited English skills, mostly Hispanics, from required testing for reading and mathematics achievement during their first year in a U.S. school.

On March 15, Mr. Paige relaxed requirements for rural schools to have “highly qualified teachers” in every classroom by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

Mr. Paige said he has been “open to listening to practitioners” in education about difficulties they have encountered with the new law. Changes already made “have been in the queue since October ‘03,” he said. “There is nothing else in the queue,” except a request from 14 state school chiefs to eliminate other federal accountability requirements, which he said would require statutory changes by Congress.

Mr. Paige repeated concerns about an average 30-point achievement gap between white and black students throughout the country, which he said must be remedied under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“There is no greater emergency or crisis. … This is a test of will for our nation,” he said. “We need to stay the course.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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