June 14, 2008

Flexibility Sought in NCLB Demands

Kansas educators asked for more flexibility to operate under the federal No Child Left Behind law during a conference Friday at Kansas University.

"It is my opinion at this point in my career that the federal government's role is that of aspiration rather than punitive and prescriptive," said Andy Tompkins, a former Kansas education commissioner and current dean of education at Pittsburg State University.

Tompkins moderated a panel at Budig Hall, and he asked for suggestions from the hundreds of administrators and teachers in the audience about how to improve the law that has driven elementary and secondary education this decade.

The educators asked for assessments that track a single student's progress throughout several years -- known as a growth model -- instead of testing the same grade levels in a school each year. They also asked for more support for struggling schools and a stronger focus on the fine arts.

Some teachers and administrators said it had become more difficult for students to enjoy learning.

"Now it's a matter of: Is it going to be on the test?" said Sam Rabiola, a Free State High School English teacher.

Congress has not yet reauthorized the law, which means the current provisions will stay in place until some action is taken. U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore, D-Kan., told the conference that the federal government has also shorted states about $80 billion in funding originally promised.

"There has to be a lot more flexibility in the standards set by No Child Left Behind and funding has to be there for the states," Moore said.

Other suggestions included giving more leeway to students trying to learn English or those in special education before they are required to take the same standardized tests as a school's general population.

"I applaud the accountability that has been needed in our profession. ... But folks, we need a little grace. We need a little understanding. We need to remove the politics and do what's right for our kids," said Rick Atha, Garden City's superintendent.

Atha said his district had made great strides recently. He expects 85 percent of Garden City High School students to score proficiently in math on this spring's assessments, a jump from 50 percent in 2005-2006. But he estimates the entire school will be listed as not meeting the Adequate Yearly Progress target because one subgroup of students will miss the graduation rate by four students.

Educators were critical of the controversial law, which requires all students to score proficiently on math and reading assessments by 2014. But they also acknowledged that it has made schools focus on using data to help students. Still, it needs to be improved, they said.

The conference -- sponsored by KU's School of Education, the Kansas State Department of Education and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation -- also allowed teachers and administrators from different parts of the state to exchange ideas about helping schools, said Rick Ginsberg, KU's dean of education.


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