Educators and officials sounded off about federal rules after hundreds of schools failed to meet achievement goals.
Parents, teachers, superintendents and even Education Commissioner Alice Seagren took shots Monday at the federal No Child Left Behind law, charging that it is too focused on punishing schools that don't meet testing goals and unrealistic in its target of having every Minnesota student proficient in math and reading by 2014.
The forum was the DFL-dominated state Senate Education Committee hearing on the federal law, which is unpopular with schools and is slated for renewal by Congress this year. The hearing was mainly for the benefit of Minnesota's elected officials in Washington.
"This is a direct attack on public education, which might not recover from it in my lifetime," said Prior Lake schools Superintendent Tom Westerhaus of the law's branding of schools that don't meet high test-score expectations. "It's also stretched out our testing season, which is already enormous."
The law's most recent impact came last month, when 729 Minnesota schools failed to meet their 2007 student achievement goals. That represented more than one-third of the state's schools.
If schools continue to miss their goals, federal penalties kick in. Those could range from offering students supplemental tutoring to state takeover of schools that perennially miss their goals. Schools can fail to meet their annual goals -- called "adequate yearly progress" -- if just one segment of their student body scores too low on state tests.
The stated purpose of No Child Left Behind is to raise the academic performance of all students. But it focuses particular attention on subgroups -- such as non-English speakers, special education students, low-income students and racial minorities -- who tend to post poorer performances than their white, middle-class schoolmates. State tests are used to measure such results.
Several educators argued at the hearing attended by a couple dozen people Monday that using tests to measure student performance is too simplistic.
"No Child Left Behind has forgotten that children are individuals, and their learning is impacted by variables in and outside the school," said Mankato teacher Robin Courrier.
Branding schools as failures and holding all schools to such high performance standards are creating much of the angst.
"All our schools are going to fail unless we stop the clock and set it to something that's more fair," said U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a St. Paul Democrat who attended the hearing and is pushing to change the law.
Proposals circulating in Congress would allow states to use measures besides testing to show student progress and reward schools for making testing gains.
Seagren defended the law's emphasis on improving the academics of children who historically fall behind in their school performance. She added, though, that the current law will become "more punitive and more bureaucratic" unless it undergoes major changes.
"I wish that we could have some common sense with this law," she said.
Norman Draper 612-673-4547
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