- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2007

RICHMOND — A top U.S. Department of Education official said yesterday that Virginia school divisions will lose federal funding if they do not comply with a federal law that requires children struggling to learn English take the same reading tests as their native-speaking peers.

Deputy Education Secretary Raymond Simon met with Superintendent of Public Instruction Billy K. Cannaday and other state education officials to discuss the provision of the No Child Left Behind law targeting those who are the least proficient in English. The Virginia Department of Education had unsuccessfully sought an exemption for another year, contending the rule is unfair.

Mr. Cannaday said after yesterday’s meeting that he wanted school divisions to be aware that “no one is operating under the illusion that there will not be consequences for noncompliance,” and that he expected school divisions to comply with the law “even though they question whether the tests are appropriate and the accommodations are adequate.”

Immigrant-rich Fairfax County, the state’s largest school division, stands to lose about $17 million, Mr. Cannaday said in a conference call with reporters. Officials have asked Mr. Simon to provide the state Board of Education figures on how much federal Title I funding school divisions stand to lose if they do not follow the law’s provision.

Title I schools receive federal funds to serve children from low-income families and are the focus of most of NCLB’s accountability measures.

School boards in Harrisonburg, Frederick, King and Queen and Amherst counties, and the D.C. suburbs of Fairfax, Prince William and Arlington counties recently signaled their intent to defy the NCLB mandates. Others are considering following suit.

Those boards have passed resolutions saying they will continue to evaluate all students’ reading proficiency, but will only administer the state’s grade-level Standards of Learning tests to students with an adequate grasp of English. Several school divisions said they wanted to continue using an alternative test to measure progress in nonnative English speakers.

Donald J. Ford, Harrisonburg’s school superintendent, said yesterday that Harrisonburg’s resolution stands, and the school board’s next step is to determine how much Title I money the division could lose.

“Our school board isn’t seeking to defy anything — we’re trying to determine how we can best meet the needs of children. It’s simply unfair to proceed as we’re being mandated to do,” Mr. Ford said in a telephone interview.

“Whether there will come a time at all over the next month or six weeks that someone in authority at the U.S. Department of Education realizes how unfair and inappropriate their decision is something we’re still looking for,” he said.

While he empathized with local school divisions, Mr. Cannaday said the state can’t risk losing money that will benefit more than just children who are learning English.

Mr. Cannaday also said the federal education department signaled it could let school divisions use the Virginia Grade-Level Assessment — a portfolio of a student’s work — to measure the skills of low-English proficiency students. He also said state officials and Mr. Simon discussed the possibility of an option under a reauthorized NCLB that would give schools credit for making progress if they don’t meet academic benchmarks solely because of the performance of English-language learners.

The issue is part of a larger debate over the law, which seeks to have all students, regardless of race, poverty or disability, proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014. It calls for students to be tested in math and reading in the third through eighth grades and once in high school, and it requires schools to show annual progress in test scores.

If schools fail to show yearly progress by each of numerous student subgroups — including children who have limited English proficiency — they face being labeled failing.

Those schools can lose funding.

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