Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Federal law offers schools flexibility in measuring progress

Education secretary enrolls state in pilot program that focuses more attention on struggling schools

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The federal No Child Left Behind Act was largely viewed as strict when it was signed into law six years ago, but a provision announced this week has given Maryland some leniency in the way it assesses its students.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings approved the state for a pilot program that allows it to differentiate struggling schools needing drastic interventions from those closer to meeting mandates of the No Child law.

Under the act, all students must score proficient or better on state tests by the 2013-2014 school year. The law already allows each state to choose its own testing benchmark to measure student success.

Five other states were approved for the program — Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio — though 17 states applied for the program.

Spellings introduced the idea for the pilot program in March after talks with state officials, who were concerned about their schools not making progress in certain categories, said Jo Ann Webb, a Spellings spokeswoman.

‘‘This law gives those states credit for the good job they’re doing,” Webb said Thursday.

Beginning next school year, the state will identify schools needing improvements in two ways: comprehensive needs and focused needs.

Schools identified for comprehensive needs don’t meet progress targets in the ‘‘all students” category, or struggle to meet targets in three or more student subgroups. Those identified for focused needs have met targets for students overall, but have not met targets in one or two areas.

Roughly 60 percent of schools listed as needing improvement would fall into the comprehensive category and 40 percent would be in the focused category, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.

‘‘We applied for this to allow our schools to be looked at differently,” said William Reinhard, a department spokesman. Before the recent changes to the No Child law, the federal act ‘‘didn’t allow us to target our efforts.”

The state will also refer to schools in the first three years of improvement as being in the ‘‘developing stage,” and after that, the schools will be in the ‘‘priority stage,” according to the education department.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick was not available for comment Thursday.

In a statement, she said the state has ‘‘supported the goals of No Child Left Behind, but we have never believed that its one-size-fits-all view of school improvement was a good thing for Maryland schools.”

Grasmick and the state school board have taken heat from lawmakers and the Montgomery school system for mandated exit exams for high school seniors.

Beginning with the upcoming senior class, all students must pass four High School Assessment tests — in algebra, English, biology and government — to earn a diploma. Students who fail an exam twice can instead complete a project to earn a diploma.

In defending the mandates, Grasmick has called the HSAs and the alternative another way to demonstrate knowledge.

Prince George’s schools Superintendent John E. Deasy, with 68 schools in ‘‘school improvement” status, said he needs more details before assessing the state’s plan, but more flexibility under No Child Left Behind was a ‘‘long time coming from the federal government.”

Previously, a school could have one subgroup — or maybe only one or two students in a subgroup — and be considered failing, even though it was a successful school overall.

‘‘My first take is it is a better situation, period, than the current rules for No Child Left Behind,” Deasy said.

Staff Writer Megan King contributed to this report.