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Vermont schools and the federal testing standards

10/18/02 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(Host) Commentator Allen Gilbert thinks that the new federal testing program might not do what it's supposed to do - improve schools for kids.

(Gilbert) It's been nearly a year since the Bush administration's education reform plan, the "No Child Left Behind" act, was passed. Lots of details about the law weren't clear when it was approved. A year later, the picture is finally starting to come into focus.

Under the No Child Left Behind, children in grades 3-8 should be tested annually. If a school's test scores don't rise from year to year, children are entitled to receive special help at public expense. If scores still don't rise, children can go to a different school, again at public expense. And if the scores still don't rise, the school can be taken over by the state and even closed.

The No Child Left Behind act represents a huge expansion of federal power over local schools. That's ironic, because the federal government contributes a very small part - about 5% - of the money we need to run our schools. And it's never come close to living up to its promise to pay 40% of special education costs.

Earlier this year, Governor Howard Dean asked whether Vermont should opt out of the No Child Left Behind testing program. The consequence would be loss of federal education funds - about $50 million. School superintendents and other educators were asked their opinion. They pointed out that complying with the law could ultimately cost three times that amount. But in the end, the state decided it couldn't find in state coffers the $50 million needed to replace the lost federal funds.

Spending $150 million to improve schools is justifiable if the result is, indeed, better schools for kids. But that might not happen. In fact, the No Child Left Behind law punishes states that have already been working hard to improve their schools. States need to show improvement from the time the federal law kicks in. If you've already made improvements, they don't count. The law also punishes states that set high standards for students.

There's another important problem. Many of the schools in rural states such as Vermont are small. Test experts say that there should be at least 50 students per grade in each school for test results to be accurate. However, nearly 60% of Vermont schools have grades with fewer than 50 kids.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the new federal law is what we might lose. Vermont has worked for a dozen years to develop an effective state testing system. The system is tied to our state's learning standards, and it gives schools the important data they need to boost learning opportunities for kids. When a school's scores are low, the state Department of Education provides "technical assistance" to help teachers improve instruction. Test scores for students at 19 of 28 schools once on the state's list of "needy" schools have improved dramatically. The state recently announced that these 19 schools are now off the list. That's a real cause for celebration, and it's testimony to the thoughtfulness and hard work of Vermont teachers and administrators.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer an parent who is active in education issues.

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