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Standardized tests here to stay

North Central High School sophomores from left, Elyse Maurer, Adam Hoffman and Amy Kragt work on an science experiment on Thursday. 
 (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
North Central High School sophomores from left, Elyse Maurer, Adam Hoffman and Amy Kragt work on an science experiment on Thursday. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

President Bush will likely end his career with a partisan battle over one of the hallmarks of his administration: the controversial education bill known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

The president considers that bill part of his legacy, and had wanted Congress to reauthorize it last year. He signed it into law six years ago this week.

Many educators and parents blame the law for what they say is an education culture in which too much time is spent preparing students for high-stakes tests.

“We like the idea of being responsible to every child,” said Nancy Stowell, superintendent of Spokane Public Schools. “The problem is the punitive nature of the law.”

Yet, now that the NCLB is up for reauthorization, Stowell and other local educators say the outcome won’t have much impact on most students: The WASL and the ISAT aren’t going away. Those are the standardized tests that students in Washington and Idaho must pass to graduate.

If it’s not reauthorized, the law stands as is. But Congress has spent nearly a year considering proposals to modify the NCLB.

Bush says the act is the best hope for closing the gap between students who perform well and those who struggle. He threatens to veto any changes that would weaken the accountability he says the law provides.

Already, the administration says, reading and math scores are at an all-time high, and achievement gaps are closing.

The president’s supporters say Democrats in Congress are holding up reauthorization because they don’t want to give the president a victory before he departs the White House because of his refusal to compromise on the Iraq war.

What Bush did six years ago was take an existing law, then known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and add teeth.

NCLB says that every child must be reading and doing math at grade level by 2014, as measured by state tests like the WASL and ISAT.

Already, schools are being held to benchmarks, measured in as many as 37 different categories. Those benchmarks include passing test scores for low-income students, students whose primary language is not English, and special education students.

If one category of student in any single school fails to make what the government calls “Adequate Yearly Progress,” the entire district faces sanctions, including the loss of federal money.

No Inland Northwest schools have lost federal money, but some are on the failing list. Last year only 33 Idaho school districts out of 128 met the benchmarks. In Washington, 281 schools statewide made the list of those failing to make adequate progress.

“The idea that a very small subgroup in a school of a bunch of kids can dictate whether you are considered successful … doesn’t make sense,” said Jerry Keane, the superintendent of the Post Falls School District, which did not meet standards this year. “There are just all kinds of issues with the law that I would argue is not good for kids.”

The National Education Association contends the law treats students like test scores, rather than individuals. It’s among the groups lobbying for changes, including the elimination of penalties by rewarding progress over time, and it wants the government to supply adequate funding to states to uphold the law.

“I don’t think anybody who is in public education wants to get rid of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which the main purpose was to provide funding to help kids who were living in poverty or minorities,” said Maureen Ramos, president of the Spokane Education Association, the local teachers union tied to the NEA.

Under NCLB, “instead of getting more support for these struggling schools, they are being penalized,” Ramos said. “Instead of providing support for teachers they punish them.”

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, last year sponsored two bills proposing changes, including one that would allow more alternatives to the tests now given and another providing some alternatives for special education students.

“One of the things we want to do is to make sure there is more flexibility in how assessments are done, so states have an option on how they measure the progress, especially where students with disabilities are concerned,” said Susan Wheeler, Crapo’s communications director.

Whether the law is reauthorized or rewritten, Washington educators say little will change, at least in regard to the challenges of this school year.

About 20 percent of this year’s seniors may not be able to graduate because they haven’t passed one or more sections of the WASL. That’s a state requirement that has nothing to do with NCLB.

The failure rate leaves districts with some perplexing problems. The Central Valley School Board, for instance, is debating whether students who haven’t passed the WASL will be allowed to walk in this spring’s graduation ceremony.

Similarly in Idaho, the ISAT is required for graduation.

Both states have alternatives for kids who can’t pass the tests, but none of the alternatives is easy.

The WASL, which ranks among the toughest standardized tests offered by any state, was first given to students in 1997 – years before the federal law was rewritten and signed by Bush.

“It was a test of measurement, to see how school districts were doing. Then they made it the NCLB test,” Ramos said. “Then the state raised the stakes more than they ever needed to by making it a graduation requirement.”

School districts this month are hoping to convince the Washington Legislature to ease up.

They had some success last year: the state delayed the requirement that students pass the math and science portions of the WASL until 2013.But the class of 2008 still must pass the reading and writing portions.