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Commission Gets No-Child Earful

May 10, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

The No Child Left Behind Act, a sweeping federal school reform law, has vastly expanded the testing of schoolchildren across the nation, but is it the wrong kind of testing?

Is the law too expensive?

Does it focus too much on reading and mathematics at the expense of subjects like history, art and music?

Those are some of the questions examined by a national panel that came to St. Joseph College in West Hartford Tuesday for the second in a series of hearings across the nation on the controversial law, the centerpiece of President Bush's school reform agenda.

Some of the harshest criticism of the law has come from Connecticut, the only state to sue the federal government over the law, contending it is too costly.

Leading government and education officials at Tuesday's hearing praised No Child Left Behind's goal of shoring up lagging student performance, but called for changes in the way students are tested and the way their scores are reported.

The independent, bipartisan Commission on No Child Left Behind will report its findings to Congress next year along with recommendations for change.

"I think Congress has got an appetite for making change because they have heard so much pro and con" about the law, former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said after listening to testimony Tuesday.

No Child Left Behind calls for a broad expansion of testing and a shake-up of schools that fail to make progress with all students, including low-income children, special education students and members of minority groups.

Despite the calls for change, "very few people say let's scrap the law altogether. I think that's a good sign," said Thompson, who co-chairs the commission along with former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes.

Several witnesses Tuesday suggested that the law should measure student growth by following the progress of the same groups of students as they move from one grade to the next. Currently, Connecticut and other states measure progress by comparing different groups - this year's fourth-graders against last year's, for example.

Connecticut Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg, who has opposed the expansion of statewide annual testing programs, suggested a different type of testing. She said schools would benefit more from periodic frequent classroom tests that would help teachers monitor individual progress - "testing that would improve student achievement and not just record it," she said.

For years, Connecticut has tested students in grades four, six and eight, but the federal law required the state also to test grades three, five and seven - an expansion Sternberg said was unnecessary.

After the federal government refused to grant Sternberg's request to waive the new requirement, the state sued the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that the government failed to provide adequate funding for the law, costing state and local taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. The suit is pending in federal court.

"You are our last best hope to make this [law] work and make Congress fulfill its promise. We are perilously close to failing in this program," state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal told members of the national panel Tuesday.

However, James Peyser, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education, said that federal support for the expansion of testing has been adequate and that some of the extra cost is the result of state testing policies that go beyond requirements of No Child Left Behind.

"I can't, in good faith, argue that the amount of money we receive ... is out of line," he said.

Although some critics contend that No Child Left Behind causes schools to divert attention from subjects such as art, music or physical education, New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein told the commission that the federal law's focus on reading and mathematics for struggling students is crucial.

"I just found it most shocking to go to high schools and find thousands of kids in my city who cannot read," he said.

Following Tuesday's hearing, commission members visited classrooms at West Hartford's Webster Hill School, where some teachers said that the Connecticut Mastery Test and similar standardized tests ignore students' other talents. Others questioned how special education students should be tested.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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