Local Commentary

Jim Moran’s News Commentary

The yearly assessments for area schools under No Child Left Behind came out last week, and the news for Northern Virginia was not very positive. Despite having some of the best schools in the country (according to a recent Newsweek report); 35% failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards under the education law.

For a school to make AYP, it must meet or exceed 29 benchmarks for participation in statewide testing, achievement in reading, science and mathematics. Missing a single benchmark may result in a school or school division not making AYP. Punishment for failing to meet these standards allows students to transfer to non-failing schools. If, after five years, the school has not met the AYP standards, it must be closed and reopened as a charter school.

One of the main problems for Northern Virginia schools under NCLB is that the testing requirements have major negative impacts on Limited English Proficiency students (LEP) and disabled students – a sizeable portion of Northern Virginia’s student body. 18.5% of students in Fairfax, 28% of students in Arlington, and 21% of students in Alexandria are classified as LEP.

NCLB requires these special needs students to be tested and graded at the same level as other students after only one year in the U.S. It’s an unreasonable requirement which sets them up for failure. Current research estimates it takes at least five years for even the best English language learners to catch up to their peers in all subjects. Imagine if an American born child was sent to China and expected to become both fluent in Mandarin and score as well as his/her peers in less than a year . Close to impossible right? Yet, that’s how we treat many of these children who are learning English as a second language under NCLB.

Fortunately, NCLB is up for reauthorization this year and there are a number of changes we can make so that the law is more workable. For starters, LEPs should be exempted from Adequate Yearly Progress determinations for at least their first three years in school. We should still test LEP kids, but requiring them to meet grade-level standards is not feasible and punishes schools and students for a problem beyond their control and not indicative of their true performance.

Next, we should consider greater flexibility and alternative certification options for teachers. The current law requires certifications that keep many bright, qualified teachers out of our school systems. For instance, in order for Social Studies and special education teachers to be considered “highly qualified” they need to be certified in a great many subjects not related to what they will actually be teaching in their classrooms. This has salary repercussions and is a major disincentive to joining the teaching profession.

The third reform to NCLB should be to fully fund it. When NCLB was first proposed by President Bush, leading Democrats on the Education Committees like Sen. Kennedy were skeptical. But with a promise to fully fund NCLB to the tune of $23 billion, their concerns were assuaged. Unfortunately, since the law was enacted in 2001, funding has hovered at around 50% of what was authorized. That means our children are being asked to meet raised standards with half the funding needed to succeed. This shortfall has placed an undue burden on states and hampered schools from implementing NCLB in the way it was meant to be.

NCLB is a flawed policy, but one that can be reformed so that it works for all the children it serves. The new Democratic Congress is taking this issue head-on and I plan to press for the aforementioned changes to the law when the reauthorization bill is considered.