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Published: Sunday, 3/4/2012

Editorials

Toward better schools

Ohio is joining most other states in seeking a waiver from provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. If the Obama Administration liberates Ohio from the inflexible testing mandates and impractical expectations of the George W. Bush-era law, state education officials can focus more on measures that may actually improve school performance.

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The waiver request seeks a release from the NCLB demand that the state show by 2014 that every student is proficient in reading and math as measured by standardized tests -- a rule state Superintendent of Public Instruction Stan Heffner calls "unrealistic." Instead, the state resolves to cut in half over six years the achievement gap reflected in test scores.

That's essential. Fewer than two-thirds of African-American and Hispanic students of graduation age in Ohio received high school diplomas in 2010, compared with nine out of 10 white students. Failure to graduate is a prescription for a lifetime of low-paid employment, if any.

Rather than try to comply with a goal that will not be reached, state education officials deserve to show that they will be held accountable for what they call "rigorous but realistic" measures to close the performance gap, while requiring all students to continue to improve.

Similarly, the Ohio Department of Education would scrap NCLB's demand that schools employ "highly qualified teachers," which equates a teacher's ability merely with her or his credentials. A new state measure would define teacher effectiveness in terms of student progress. The state still must show that it can develop a teacher evaluation system that is fair, objective, and workable, but that effort is crucial.

State officials want to give Ohio schools and districts letter grades of A to F on their annual report cards. That would improve on the current system that assigns labels such as "continuous improvement" or "academic watch," which parents and taxpayers may find ambiguous. Mr. Heffner vows to be a tough grader.

The waiver seeks expanded options in using federal aid earmarked for poor-performing schools. State officials say that would make it easier for those schools to develop solutions that meet their students' unique needs.

A related proposal would impose tougher "quality controls" when low-performing schools use federal money to hire tutors. Under the waiver, such schools could apply that aid instead to lengthening the school day or year.

That flexibility might seem an appealing alternative, given the sentiment among some state lawmakers to shrink the school calendar to appease summer employers of school-aged youths. But it's troubling that the state wants to end the NCLB requirement that students in low-performing schools are eligible for free tutoring or transfer to another school. Such a retreat seems to contradict the Kasich administration's oft-expressed enthusiasm for school choice.

More generally, the Education Department seeks to reduce the reporting burdens imposed by NCLB. Less paperwork is better, as long as it does not become an obstacle to transparent operations.

The waiver also would enable the state more easily to accommodate national guidelines for a common core curriculum, a better road map to academic improvement than ever-expanded testing.

The Obama Administration already has granted NCLB waivers to 11 other states. It is emphasizing its own Race to the Top education initiative, which does a better job of linking federal aid to flexible and realistic requirements.

Superintendent Heffner is correct: Ohio schools must go beyond merely meeting minimum performance standards if the state is to remain educationally and economically competitive.

Shedding the burdens of No Child Left Behind will help enable the state to develop and enforce more-meaningful, accountable measures of student achievement.



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