Left Behind 

Lawmakers push to leave Bush's education plan behind

Standardized tests involve more than reading, writing and arithmetic. Body fluids are also part of the equation.

"We have kids who vomit on test day. We have kids who cry. We have kids who wet their pants," says Van Buren Elementary teacher, Sherri Wood.

Kid's tears are only part of the problem says Wood, a 28-year veteran educator. Some kids inevitably fail standardized tests meant to measure their yearly progress and teachers are held accountable. And when students fail high stakes tests mandated under the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind Act, schools fail as well.

"It's the rules and regs that are the devil in the details, " Wood says. "They're just nuts."

Some Idaho lawmakers want to leave George W. Bush's education plan behind. They have proposed legislation that calls for the state's exemption from the act.Republicans backing the bill that gained support from the Idaho Educators Association say the call for exemption has nothing to do with partisan politics.

"I don't think you can manage our schools from D.C.," says Sen. Gary Schroeder (R-Moscow), sponsor of the Senate Joint Memorial, that at press time was headed to the Senate Education Committee.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act requires schools to meet "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP) criteria or be placed in "AYP Jail." Failing schools could eventually face federal intervention, and schools that balk at the NCLB could lose federal funding. Schroeder calls the mandate an impossible and costly task for smaller schools.

"We're not saying that we want to refuse federal funding," Schroeder says. "We think it's an unfunded mandate and it's a federal takeover of our schools."

The Memorial tells Congress that Idaho already leads the nation in school improvement thanks to the Idaho Reading Initiative and the creation of the Idaho Standards Assessment Test (ISAT). Lawmakers and educators also say Idaho's largely rural schools don't face the problems of metropolitan schools that NCLB legislation intends to remedy.

Some rural schools are already exempted from NCLB. But the Act so narrowly defines "rural" that many of Idaho's small schools would not meet the exemption criteria, says Lorna Jimerson with The Rural School and Community Trust.

She notes that some see NCLB as part of an agenda to expand school choice. Parents have the option of sending their children to a different school if their neighborhood school does not meet standards. But Jimerson says shipping kids from school to school isn't an option in districts with few schools or for families who are unable to make long commutes.

"It's a misfit situation and states know that," she says.

Lawmakers say "NCLB" sounds admirable, but eight states including Utah have made similar moves to exempt their schools from its mandates.

"The goals are simply not fair and simply not realistic," says the Idaho Education Association's Communications Director Gayle Moore. "There's just too many ways a school can be judged as a failure."

Educators say it's going to be difficult to attract good teachers to failing schools and that good teachers already at failing schools won't want to keep plugging away when they're deemed failures.And teachers say no matter what, some students will get left behind.

"Obviously we want every child to meet their full potential. But I have a third grader and we get pretty darn excited when she can write a sentence because when she came to school at five years old, she could not speak," Wood says.

A child with an IQ of 50 cannot meet the proficiency standards outlined by the NCLB Act, Wood says. But when Bush says, "No Child Left Behind," he means, "No Child Left Behind." By 2012, 100 percent of public school children must make what's considered adequate yearly progress and meet proficiency standards in core subjects. That means Wood's third grader who couldn't speak at age five would have to meet the same standards as students with achievements that Wood explains using what she calls the "Volvo theory": Students from middle and upper-middle class backgrounds tend to have the benefits of vacations, excursions to the theater, involved and educated parents. And those class privileges often translate into a more successful school career. Under NCLB provisions, a student who cannot recognize his or her name, the students who come from abusive backgrounds, are poor, speak English as a second language, rarely eat a nutritious dinner--students who have everything going against them are expected to meet the same standards as students from "Volvo households." The law does provide some exemptions for the most severely disabled and some ESL students, but for the most part, a child with Downs Syndrome could be held to the same standards as a class valedictorian.

Wood sees the individuality of her students every day and measures progress on a case by case basis. One student's victory wouldn't even earn a mention on another student's progress report. And the brilliant artist who struggles to master simple addition could walk away from a standardized test labeled a failure.

"Creativity is not measured in the ISAT," Wood says.

If student test scores miss the mark, their schools could face punitive measures including warnings and ultimately federal intervention and restructuring.

The possibility of federal intervention in schools, backed by fiercely independent parents, school boards and communities, does not sit well with some lawmakers. And the seemingly arbitrary nature of standardized tests doesn't sit well with teachers. Wood remembers a time one student who couldn't recognize her name took the ISAT. She scored quite well, Wood says.

"She was a happy little clicker. She just clicked," Wood says, referring to the computerized test.

"She took about 12 minutes to answer 52 questions, and she was proficient. She was proficient because she happened to click on the right answer."

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