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Give California a No Child Left Behind waiver

California would very much like a waiver from the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. The vast majority of the state’s schools, including many high-achieving ones, would be labeled as failures by 2014 under the poorly written federal law, facing sanctions that time and experience now show to be of little help to low-achieving students.

The U.S. Department of Education would like to give California a waiver. It wants to show that states are willing to go along with its plan for revamping the law, and doesn’t want to impose sanctions on the biggest state, with an eighth of the nation’s students.

Yet state and federal officials could be headed toward a giant game of chicken over the waiver application because of a small provision within the very large and complicated plan. That provision would require states to make standardized test scores count in teachers’ performance evaluations, a hot-button issue that has been vehemently opposed by teachers unions in California. In a meeting last month with The Times’ editorial board, state Supt. Tom Torlakson didn’t rule out the possibility of the state moving in that direction, someday and under the right circumstances. But he was far from committed to the concept, and opposed to doing it while the state is still using the current tests, which are due to be replaced in about four years.

The Obama administration nonetheless has been overly determined to prod states into using test scores in teacher evaluations. That was a factor in whether states were winners in Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top — a grants competition that California never got fully on board with — and now the government wants to require it for relief from No Child Left Behind, with intermediate steps leading up to full adoption in four years.

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Using test scores to rate teachers is the latest trend in the reform movement, and while doing so might have value as one of many elements in an evaluation, federal education officials admit that there is a dearth of research on whether it actually improves learning. That makes it premature to be talking about this as a long-term federal mandate. Politicians have seized on other supposed silver bullets of school reform — small schools, reconstituted schools — only to find over time and after study that the results were mixed to nonexistent.

The administration’s plan should focus on accountability — whether schools are meeting their goals — rather than attempting to dictate the process by which they do it. The evaluation mandate is a troubling anomaly in a generally well-thought-out plan for overhauling No Child Left Behind.

The law, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, was supposed to result in all U.S. students testing as proficient in reading and math by 2014. Assorted disciplinary measures have been levied on schools that didn’t make the grade. But the goal was always unattainable — more than 80% of schools would be labeled as failing by that time. No Child Left Behind is clumsily crafted and laden with nonsensical rigidity, untested punishments and unrealistic expectations.

Congressional failure to overhaul the law as the situation moved closer to meltdown prompted the Obama administration to try its hand at formulating a more sensible plan. It has largely succeeded, though congressional Republicans validly question whether the law can in effect be rewritten by the president rather than Congress.

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The Obama restructuring would build more flexibility into the goals and the way progress is measured. Schools would be credited for showing that students are on the path to proficiency even if they aren’t there yet. States would be able to count other achievements toward schools’ progress, such as lower absenteeism rates and higher graduation rates. States would be invited to create their own standards and ways of measuring progress, as long as a federal committee finds those to be rigorous enough. That would fix the current problem of states reacting to unrealistic goals by setting their standards so low that even bad schools can meet them.

Unlike No Child Left Behind, which labels schools as failing if they don’t meet rigid goals for every subgroup of students, the administration’s rules would take into account that there’s a difference between a truly terrible school where no progress is being made and a school that’s coming along even if it misses some targets.

What the plan unfortunately lacks is a way to address the narrowing of curriculum that has occurred under No Child Left Behind. With only reading and math measured by the federal law, schools have cut back on other parts of the curriculum, including the arts and physical education. The administration could have included more ways to measure progress through, say, portfolios that exhibit accomplishments in other subjects.

Republicans in Congress can do battle with the administration about whether it has the authority to impose its revamp of No Child Left Behind, but if they want to help students, they would be better off using the plan — with some amendments — as a blueprint for legislation. It returns significant authority and flexibility to the states, something the GOP has rightly sought.

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Meanwhile, the Obama administration has made it clear that it wants every state to obtain a waiver from No Child Left Behind and will work with states to make it happen. If the Education Department is willing to be more flexible than the written mandates indicate, California and the federal government could work out a deal. The state should be exploring the use of test scores in teacher evaluations, but they should not be mandated at this point. That could include pilot programs like the one in Los Angeles Unified School District in which teachers can volunteer to participate in a more rigorous evaluation process. Research on the effectiveness of test scores as a teacher measuring tool are needed. It makes more sense for Duncan to back off from this mandate than to see California left without a waiver.


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