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Education chief urges states to opt out of No Child Left Behind

Public schools struggling under the testing mandates of No Child Left Behind were handed a lifeline Monday by the Obama administration that will allow them to opt out of the federal education reform.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the opportunity Monday, calling No Child Left Behind an "impediment" and "disincentive" for educators. He urged all states to apply for exemptions — and expects many will — when the option is made available in September.

Nevada definitely will be among the states seeking relief, said Keith Rheault, state superintendent of public schools.

If Nevada’s waiver is accepted, that doesn’t mean standardized testing would disappear here or in other states, Duncan said. Testing will remain, but states will be given the freedom to implement their own systems for making sure students have the skills they need by the time they graduate. Testing will just be used differently than it has been under No Child Left Behind, which relied heavily on test scores in determining whether schools are adequate or not.

Only 5 percent of Clark County schools have passed No Child Left Behind every year of the federal act’s nine years of implementation, and even principals of those schools want change.

"It’s only a matter of time before we don’t pass," said Aalya Page, principal of Bilbray Elementary School, west of Fort Apache Road, near U.S. Highway 95.

No Child Left Behind requires that a percentage of students test as proficient each year, with the bar rising annually to 100 percent in 2013-14. That is what many have called an "unreachable goal."

But that is not the biggest problem, Page said. Those students who are making gains don’t get credit and neither do their teachers.

"The current system is fundamentally unfair," said Duncan, who bluntly noted the flaws of the reform initiated by President George W. Bush. A whole school can fail if just one student subgroup, such as limited English speakers or special education students, falls short.

"Many schools showing real improvement are labeled as failures under No Child Left Behind," Duncan said.

That is because No Child Left Behind doesn’t acknowledge student growth below the bar. Only one question is asked through annual standardized tests: Are students performing at grade level in math and English?

"Frankly, we need to get out of the way," said Duncan, asserting that the "one-size-fits-all" approach of No Child Left Behind for all public schools doesn’t work.

Nevada’s proposed "growth model" — to be used in the Clark County School District — has a good chance of meeting requirements.

"We’re much more interested in growth and gain," said Duncan, noting that many states are leaning toward similar growth models.

The growth model would place emphasis on students’ individual progress over time instead of basing success solely on whether student scores are proficient on an annual standardized test.

The Nevada Department of Education will reveal its growth model on Aug. 15, Rheault said.

The plus of this system is that no child will be left behind, said Brian Wiseman, principal of four rural Clark County schools.

His schools in Lundy and Indian Springs have passed No Child Left Behind at least eight out of nine years.

Children are actually left behind under the current system because teachers don’t bother with students who are already passing the standardized test, he said. These students stay stagnant.

It’s the same with students at the very bottom of performance. There’s no hope in them passing the test, so they lose the attention to students on the fence.

"The growth model is more indicative of no child left behind," Wiseman said because teachers must show that all students are progressing.

"Every child moves at a different pace," Page said. "What’s more important than scoring proficient is that they make a year’s gain in a year’s time."

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@review journal.com or 702-383-0279.

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