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NCLB just might need to be left behind

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It appears that seven schools in Bedford County did not meet the No Child Left Behind's Adequate Yearly Progress requirements this past year and an eighth is on the fence. For all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the NCLB Act back in 2001, those results are more a sign of a failed federal policy than failures within the school system itself.

Two of Bedford County's schools will have to offer school choice this year. Bedford Primary School and Bedford Elementary School have both failed to meet AYP for the past two years, meaning, under NCLB, students at those schools will have to be given the option to attend another school in the district. Specifically, those students will be given the option of attending Big Island Elementary.

On the surface, NCLB has an admirable goal: Make sure that all students are learning. But the problems with the Act are in the details.

At the heart of the problems is that NCLB is a federal program. Having the federal government try to apply across-the-board standards for all this nation's school divisions is not logical. The issues facing school divisions in Bedford County differ greatly from those in New York City or even Roanoke.

In fact, the issues of educating students within a single school division can differ as well, depending on how the subgroups are divided between schools. Those subgroups represent specific populations of students within a school. The Act holds those subgroups to the same benchmarks that the total population of a school must meet. That means a school could meet the benchmarks as a whole, but fail to do so within a specific subgroup.

In Virginia, these groups ? which can include special education, black, white, Hispanic, low-income and disabled students ? can be as large as 49 students at any given school before they have to be counted as a specific subgroup. That fact, in itself, can skew the numbers. A school with little diversity may have students within a specific subgroup falling below AYP but that school isn't marked as failing AYP because the subgroup is too small to be counted as a separate unit. Instead those scores are only counted in the school's overall AYP numbers. Because Big Island Elementary has a small school population, it is not likely to be affected in the same way as Bedford Elementary, which is more likely to have more than 50 students in specific subgroups.

Since NCLB was enacted in 2001 several states, Virginia included, have been given various exemptions to the Act. For example, Virginia school divisions can add percentage points to special education pass rates. This exemption was put in place until a new test could be devised for some lower-functioning special education students.

That highlights a key problem with NCLB: The Act places an emphasis on having the school division focus on teaching students to pass a test ? or find loopholes in the system ? rather than spending time focused on providing a quality education. That has led Bedford County, for example, to hire testing coordinators for the county's high schools because of the amount of time testing takes up every year. That emphasis has the possibility of forcing teachers to spend an inordinate amount of instruction time teaching to a test rather than providing an overall quality education experience.

With a new president set to take office in January, and NCLB up for renewal, now is a good time to rethink this federal law. Lawmakers here have considered making Virginia the first state to pull out of NCLB, which could cost the commonwealth more than $350 million in federal aid. It might be worth the risk.

The federal government, at the very least, must provide more flexibility to school systems as they seek to provide a quality education to all students. The new administration, whoever it might be, must be willing to take a long, hard look at whether NCLB has actually achieved its own adequate progress the past seven years.