By Edward Lee Pitts
WASHINGTON -- The narrowing achievement gap between minority and nonminority students is largely because of the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act, which must be reauthorized by Congress this year, area lawmakers say.
"No Child Left Behind did what it was supposed to do -- improve test scores in reading and math," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Senate Committee.
That committee and its House counterpart plan hearings on the education law during the next few months, with a possible vote on its reauthorization as early as April or May.
On the fifth anniversary last week of the landmark education law, one of the first major laws signed by President Bush, regional members of Congress said the act needs tweaking more than a major overhaul.
But more than 100 education, religious and civil rights groups have announced a push for major changes, saying the programs instituted in 2001 are not improving education nationwide. The groups argue the legislation is underfunded, too focused on one-size-fits-all testing and unfairly punishes too many schools and students.
"The fifth anniversary is the second starting gun for No Child Left Behind," said Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association.
President Bush, along with Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, already has begun reaching out to lawmakers in preparation for debate about the law's renewal.
"Before this act became law, kids often moved from grade to grade, and nobody knew whether or not they had learned to read, write, add or subtract," Ms. Spellings said last week.
However, a recent study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University concluded that the act has not had a significant impact on improving reading and math or closing the achievement gap across the nation.
In Hamilton County the gap between minority and nonminority students in grades three through eight has closed by 7.8 percentage points in reading and 12 percentage points in math, records show.
No Child Left Behind requires all students to be reading and doing math at grade level by 2014. It uses annual standardized tests to hold schools accountable.
Calls to simplify
As members of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over education, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Isakson are expected to play key roles in hearings about the law.
Sen. Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary and president of the University of Tennessee, said lawmakers this year should work on reducing confusion about the law among educators and instituting more flexibility in its programs.
Most of the frustration about the law in its early years was because of confusion about the act, which is more than 1,000 pages long, Sen. Alexander said.
New measures for honoring schools that are making progress to complement the current penalties for underperforming schools should be added, he said. In addition, new standards for measuring the progress of students who are not proficient in English should be developed.
"Tennessee schools have an influx of students who don't speak English," Sen. Alexander said.
Sen. Isakson said he'd like to see a three-year waiting period before non-English-speaking students are tested. Currently they are given a one-year reprieve.
"That is probably not enough time for students coming here with zero experience in English," Sen. Isakson said.
Sen. Isakson said he wants to revisit a provision requiring highly qualified teachers in the four main subject areas, something he said is not possible in some areas of Tennessee and Georgia.
In the House, Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., said he likely would not vote for the act's reauthorization. He was the only member of the Tennessee delegation to vote against its creation five years ago.
He said the federal government has gotten too deeply involved in education simply because "five or six big cities have failing school systems."
"I think the teachers, principals and parents in Tennessee have got sense enough to run their own schools," Rep. Duncan said. "Education in Tennessee doesn't need to be controlled by the federal government just because schools in Chicago and New York have gone to pot."
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said special education students should be held to a different standard than other students. He said it is harder for schools with a high enrollment of special needs students to meet their annual benchmarks.
Rep. Wamp said physical education also should be tested in No Child Left Behind by 2009. He said PE has been getting left behind as schools focus time and resources on reading, math and science.
"The physical wellness of our nation's youth is a huge impediment to learning," he said.
Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., said teachers in the rural areas of his district are concerned about continuing education requirements that force them back into the classroom. That can be difficult and costly in the rural areas, he said.
The act's opponents, such as the National Education Association, argue that the end-of-year tests dominate classroom time and stifle teacher creativity. But this was a notion dismissed by many area lawmakers.
"The best teachers don't teach to the test," Sen. Alexander said. "If No Child Left Behind had never passed, there still would be plenty of testing because states want to know how their students are doing."
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