Thirteen states that enroll more than a third of the nation’s high school students announced Sunday that they had formed a coalition to hold schools accountable for graduating students with the skills needed to succeed in college or in the workplace.
“This is the biggest step states can take to restore the value of a high school diploma,” said Ohio Gov. Robert A. Taft, a Republican.
The states, which did not include California, agreed to seek reforms that would raise education standards in high school, setting math, science and language requirements that would help students shift smoothly into college or a demanding job. Students’ progress would be tracked through testing, and schools would be held accountable for ensuring students are ready for college or work by graduation.
The announcement marked the culmination of a two-day session by the National Governors Assn. to address what many business leaders and elected officials see as a crisis of low expectations and mediocre results in high school education.
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the Bush administration endorsed the governors’ call for reform and would play a supporting role to the states. “Getting every child to graduate high school with a meaningful diploma in their hands is one of the biggest challenges our country faces,” Spellings told the governors. “It’s never been done before.”
However, Congress is unlikely to pass a high school version of Bush’s controversial No Child Left Behind law, which applies mainly to elementary and middle school education.
Many state officials have complained that the law imposes too many federal requirements without enough funding. School districts face the loss of federal funds if student scores on standardized tests do not improve.
No Child Left Behind “is not a model for legislation,” said Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat.
Achieving the goals the 13 states set may not be easy. Governors will have to negotiate with school districts, state university leaders, legislators and teachers unions to craft reforms that can win approval in each state.
Business leaders pledged their support for the campaign, called the American Diploma Project. It will be coordinated by Achieve Inc., a nonpartisan organization the National Governors Assn. created to promote education reforms. Six private foundations pledged $23 million in matching funds.
The states on the list include Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Texas. At least two or three more states are expected to join the effort.
Achieve President Michael Cohen said it was unclear what action, if any, California would take. The state’s leaders are divided over education policy, Cohen said. “Achievement rates are low, and they have been declining,” he said.
Bush’s 2006 budget calls for extending elements of No Child Left Behind to high schools. The proposal includes funds for additional testing at the high school level, and a $1.24-billion initiative aimed at helping students who are falling behind or are in danger of dropping out.
The governors did not take a position on the president’s proposals. Congress will rework several major federal education laws this year, and the governors asked Washington to reduce paperwork requirements, grant them greater authority over the uses of federal funds and support state efforts to redesign high schools.
“I know some of you are looking for some flexibility, I understand that,” Spellings told the governors. But she said the administration would not step back from the central goals of No Child Left Behind, including holding schools and school districts individually accountable.
“No longer can we allow minority, disadvantaged or disabled kids to be ... hidden behind the averages and lost in the shuffle,” said Spellings.