By DIANA JEAN SCHEMO / NY Times
WASHINGTON, Sept. 5 — Education Secretary Margaret Spellings on Wednesday criticized a Congressional proposal to soften provisions of President’s Bush signature education law, saying it would severely weaken the federal effort to raise achievement among poor and minority children.
In a speech before a business group and at a news conference, Ms. Spellings said that a series of proposals in draft legislation circulated by Democrats and Republicans on the House education committee, taken together, would allow states to remove children from testing regimes and tutoring services, and would make it too difficult for parents to know whether students and schools are making progress.
“It’s just too darn confusing,” Ms. Spellings said of the draft bill. “To make it more complex, less transparent, more obfuscated I think would be a huge mistake, particularly when we’re on the run, we’re on the move.”
The No Child Left Behind Law, passed in 2002, requires schools to report annual test scores in reading and math for all children in grades three to eight, broken down by race, ethnicity and other factors. The law requires all students to reach proficiency in reading and math by 2014, and singles out schools that fail to make sufficient progress toward that goal for progressively more severe penalties.
Ms. Spellings weighed in as the House and Senate prepare to push the law to renewal this month. The House draft would preserve the goal of bringing students to proficiency by 2014 but would broaden the ways schools could demonstrate student progress.
Rather than relying solely on reading and math scores, schools could include tests in other subjects, attendance and graduation rates. It would also distinguish between schools that broadly fail to meet annual goals and those that fall slightly short.
Ms. Spellings complained that proposals to change various provisions of the law “could be a significant retreat from accountability.”
Passing no bill at all this year, she added, would be preferable to passing one that dilutes the law’s power because the current version stays in force until Congress passes a new law.
Still, Ms. Spellings, who has been campaigning all year for the law’s renewal, avoided attacking the draft directly in her formal talk before an audience of business leaders and education advocates, and did so only in response to questions from reporters afterward. She also sent a letter detailing her criticisms to Congressional leaders.
In the letter she also criticized a provision of the draft, sought by states with large immigrant populations, that would allow schools to test non-English speakers in their native language for up to five years, instead of the current three. “That’s simply too long,” she wrote, “this would allow a third-grade student to reach the tenth grade before ever being tested in English.”
Speaking to the same group minutes before the education secretary, Representative George Miller, the California Democrat who is chairman of the education committee, said that he remained “strongly committed” to the principles of No Child Left Behind, but he said that the law needed more flexibility.
Representative Howard P. McKeon of California, the ranking Republican on the education committee, said he and other Republicans shared many of the secretary’s concerns. “Things that weaken accountability and make the bill less than what it is right now, I don’t think we’re interested in supporting,” Mr. McKeon said.
The education committee will hold hearings on the draft in the coming weeks and is trying for the full House to vote on a bill by month’s end.
The Senate is also planning to release a bill updating No Child Left Behind this month.