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Addressing the gaps

The Baltimore Sun

With a domestic agenda that is practically stalled, President Bush is trying to salvage one of his earliest and most visible accomplishments - the No Child Left Behind law. The ambitious attempt to make schools and school districts more accountable for achievement among all students is up for reauthorization and facing some justifiable criticism. A recent study notes that student scores in reading and math have improved in many states, but NCLB's measurements and funding need major adjustments.

The law envisions having students performing at grade level in reading and math - with the help of a highly qualified teacher - by 2014. But calculating success has depended too heavily on standardized tests and on schools' showing that they have met certain annual benchmarks.

The Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based group that has tracked the law since it went into effect in 2002, found that post-NCLB math scores in elementary school had improved by moderate to large amounts in 22 of 25 states where comparable data could be found. Elementary reading scores showed significant improvement in 14 of 25 states. According to the study, about 14 states also managed to narrow the achievement gap between minorities and white students in reading and math, but the racial gap has yet to be eliminated.

In addition to NCLB, the study also cites pressure from state and local reform efforts for greater emphasis on improving student performance. But while NCLB has pushed states to confront gaps in performance or face sanctions, its rather inflexible focus on "adequate yearly progress" has encouraged some states to set fairly low standards of achievement or to be less-than-transparent in reporting results.

Mr. Bush and the Department of Education should allow more states to show compliance by tracking individual student progress rather than trying to meet annual benchmarks. More financial and technical resources should also be provided to address valid complaints from states that the law has established unfunded mandates, falling short of approved funding levels by more than $40 billion. If Mr. Bush wants to recapture the spirit of bipartisan support with which NCLB was originally greeted, he should address the law's own gaps in performance between passage and implementation.

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