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Education Reporter

No Child Left Behind
States Are Watering Down Testing
Standards to Avoid Federal Sanctions 
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Recently adopted standardized testing requirements are flunking so many students that many states are simply revising their required scores downward to solve the problem. In addition, some state and local policies are diluting the student's new federal right to transfer out of a "failing" or "persistently dangerous" school.

State standardized tests have become an important yardstick to measure student and school performance. Under the No Child Left Behind law signed by President Bush in 2002, the states may establish their own standards of success, and if they fail, they risk losing federal money and other sanctions.

Last fall, after reviewing test scores a member described as "grim," the Texas State Board of Education reduced the number of questions students must answer correctly in order to pass from 24 to 20 out of 36, for third-grade reading. Michigan officials lowered the percentage of students who must pass statewide tests to certify a school as making adequate progress from 75% to 46% of high school students on English tests. Colorado restructured the grading system for its tests, lumping "partially proficient" students with "proficient" students (New York Times, 5-22-03).

While testing pass rates are subject to manipulation by state education authorities, the federal mandate of year-to-year progress in test scores is harder to evade. The No Child Left Behind Act states, among other things, that every racial and demographic group in each school must score higher on standardized tests every year. If any group fails to advance for two consecutive years, a school is labeled "needing improvement." A school that does not improve students' scores after being so labeled may have its principal and teachers replaced and face other sanctions, including closing.

As a result, large numbers of schools face being designated as "needing improvement." Officials have estimated that will happen to at least 60% of North Carolina schools and 75% of Louisiana schools. In Michigan, an elementary school President Bush described as "excelling" was declared below standard just three months later (nytimes.com, 2-16-03).

The No Child Left Behind Act also allows students at schools labeled "failing" to transfer out. Los Angeles and Chicago school officials, who have harshly criticized the law, approve very few transfers in practice, citing overcrowding concerns. In New York City, on the other hand, all 8,000 transfer requests have been approved, but a third of them have been moved from one "failing" school to another "failing" school which does not receive Title I funds (New York Times, 10-1-03).

States may set not only standards for testing, but also the threshold for "persistently dangerous" schools, a designation under the federal law that requires educators to notify parents and permit a transfer to a safer school. Forty-four states plus the District of Columbia have set the threshold so high that no schools in those states fit the definition. Only six states have identified a total of 52 out of 90,000 public schools in the U.S. as dangerous - New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas - even though shootings and stabbings occur on school property in many other states.

In September alone, a student in Cold Spring, Minn. killed a fellow student and wounded another, three students were stabbed in a school parking lot brawl in Oakdale, Calif., a teenage intruder stabbed a 13-year-old student at a school in Annapolis, Md., and a 16-year-old boy died after a fight at a Tucson, Ariz. school (nytimes.com, 9-29-03). There were nearly 700,000 violent crimes in U.S. schools in 2000, the last year for which government statistics are available.

"The states are sending a false sense of security to parents, and it creates a laxity among educators in terms of school safety," Kenneth Trump, a national school safety consultant, told the Associated Press (9-24-03). Not even Columbine High School near Denver, Colo. - where two young gunmen killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 in 1999 - made the "persistently dangerous" list.

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