Does fed law set the bar for schools too high?

No Child Left Behind had a noble goal: Every American student would become proficient or better in English and math by 2014. But the federal law may already be outliving its usefulness, some educators say.

The 2002 reform requires schools to meet test-performance goals or risk being labeled as "program improvement" campuses that must undertake traumatic restructuring.

Federal prodding and funding that went along with it have improved student achievement. But the goals escalate so fast that even substantial test-score improvements will not be enough to keep up, many school leaders say.

Even the highest-performing schools are finding it harder and harder to hit the mark, and few -- if any -- will be at 100% by 2014.

"There is certainly a sense of urgency, because the closer we get to 2014, the more pain we are going to feel, especially from high-performing school districts," said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank in Washington, D.C.

"If all of these districts -- including the ones that everyone knows are pretty good -- go into program improvement, then the label is meaningless."

So Congress, the federal education secretary and state and local school officials are calling for changes in the federal law.

The concern is mainly over the portion of the law that defines "adequate yearly progress," which by 2014 will require 100% of all students to have proficient or advanced test scores -- the top two ratings in the testing program.

In California, school districts were required to have 56% proficient or advanced in English-language arts last year and 67% in the coming year. In math, scores are supposed to rise to roughly the same levels in the coming year. That number will continue escalating by 11 percentage points each of the next three years until it reaches 100% in 2014.

Districts that don't reach performance goals are labeled "program improvement," which identifies those that fail to meet testing requirements for at least two consecutive years.

"Even under the best circumstances, entire districts are not moving that fast," said Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson. About half of the district's 94 schools have been in program improvement for five years or longer.

Even Clovis Unified School District, which has the second-highest test scores among California's larger school districts, could soon face program-improvement sanctions because of the yearly progress requirements.

The sanctions include giving parents the option of sending their students to other schools, free tutoring and a new governing board, depending on how long the school has been in program improvement.

The district had an overall score of 866 last year, 11 points better than the previous year, and just one of Clovis Unified's 41 schools is in program improvement.

"Clovis can be shown as what is wrong with No Child Left Behind," said Jake Bragonier, spokesman for Madera Unified School District, where 13 of 24 schools are in program improvement. "For anyone to consider that a failing school district must be making some kind of joke."

Clovis Unified Superintendent David Cash doesn't think it's funny, however. While on a trip to Washington, D.C., last week, he expressed his views to lawmakers.

"I am suggesting they get away from the absolute [number for proficient and advanced] and move toward a growth model which everyone believes is a better measure of what is happening in schools," he said.

Such a growth model could be to show continuous improvement on test scores, as is happening in Clovis schools, he said.

Cash left Washington with assurances that federal education leaders are taking a serious look at revising No Child Left Behind.

State school officials met in Kentucky this week to discuss the types of changes they want to see in a revised federal law, said Geno Flores, California's chief deputy superintendent of public instruction.

In addition to being acknowledged for improved scores, districts should be rewarded for students who pass the high school exit exam even if it happens years after their class graduates. No Child Left Behind should also consider ways to monitor progress in schools with large numbers of English learners and the difficulties they face when it comes to testing.

The upcoming congressional session has the potential for gridlock on major issues, but Republican and Democrats may be able to find common ground on education policy, Flores said.

But with a new House majority party and dozens of new members, it's not clear who will be sitting on a new congressional education and labor committee, and that could cause delays in addressing needed changes for No Child Left Behind, said Brian Edwards, a policy analyst for California-based EdSource, a nonpartisan education research organization.

Congressional leaders have been working on changes to the education act with the Obama administration and leaders in the Senate, said Melissa Salmanowitz, a spokeswoman for the House Education and Labor Committee chairman.

She said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, the committee's outgoing chairman, believes "there is an urgency" in rewriting the law, but he also wants a bill both parties can agree on.

"What he has said in the past is that what we really need to do is step away from a really rigid system," she said.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minnesota, who is expected to take over as the committee chairman, has said the law's emphasis should switch from static benchmarks to ongoing student achievement.

"Rep. Kline is listening to the educators on the front lines who constantly tell us they need a system that is simpler, more understandable, and less cumbersome to comply with," said Alexa Marrero, Kline's spokeswoman on the committee. "One way to achieve that goal is by scaling back federal involvement and making sure Washington is not trying to micromanage classrooms."

In a speech Wednesday, federal education secretary Arne Duncan said the department is seeking new ways to gauge student progress.

"All of us still have a lot to learn about measuring, evaluating and improving productivity," he told the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "We are eager to learn as fast as we can."

He also said the department's reauthorization proposal "reduces red tape for people at the state and local level."

Petrilli said a balance can probably be struck, because there is significant concern about the way federal rules affect local school districts. But the question remains about the type of role the federal government can play when there is global competition for the best jobs, he said.

But, Edwards predicts that the Republican takeover of the House may keep this issue from being addressed anytime soon.

For Hanson, Fresno's superintendent, the federal role is not something that he focuses on from day to day.

"I pay attention to the federal conversation as much as I need to," he said, "but the real work is in the classroom every day and moving kids as far as we can, as fast we can."