If your daughter starts the school year two years behind the learning curve but works hard and finishes the year at the equivalent of half a grade behind, she still fails, according to federal law.

Her proficiency in reading, math and science is judged by a test. She does not receive scores for art or social studies or her ability to complete a project across multiple subjects.

Local, state and federal officials agree that the law called No Child Left Behind — which expanded the federal government’s reach into every public school in the U.S. and mandated how students’ academic ability is measured — should be improved.

So Maine is working to improve the law itself.

Since Congress failed to rewrite the law before the approaching school year, some states will request exemption from certain provisions of the law in the coming weeks. To do so, they will create their own systems of school accountability.

The Maine Department of Education plans to submit a waiver request to the U.S. Department of Education once an alternate framework can be developed to measure schools’ academic performance, state Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said.

“This is a big deal. It really is proposing an alternative system, and it’s complex because there are going to be evaluation systems and reporting requirements and requirements about what to do with under-performing schools,” Bowen said.

The department and Maine school leaders plan to put together “a more flexible system that uses multiple indicators of student achievement,” Bowen said. The 2002 No Child Left Behind law requires schools to test their students every year in grades 3 through 8 and one year in high school. Each year, schools must show they are increasing the percentage of students making adequate progress.

By the 2013-14 school year, it requires that 100 percent of students show they are proficient in reading and math — or their schools will face harsh penalties.

“We all know that’s not going to happen,” Bowen said about reaching 100-percent proficiency. The number of “failing” schools continues to grow as students struggle to reach the increasingly ambitious achievement goals.

The federal government also acknowledges that the law must change.

“It’s time to create a process for states to gain flexibility from key provisions of the law, provided that they are willing to embrace education reform,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement.

Education reform for Maine will likely mean requiring students’ academic capability to be measured by more than standardized tests, Bowen said.

“What we’re saying is, ‘Let us measure students multiple times using multiple indicators,’” Bowen said. “In terms of the federal accountability structure, give us a way to measure the success of students and teachers and schools that is more representative of what they’re capable of doing and is more fair and is using a lot of different points of data.”

Schools will still be held accountable, Bowen said. The state is not requesting to be exempt from having to meet requirements; it wants to meet the requirements in a new way. Maine will not be penalized if the waiver request is not approved.

“This isn’t about covering up schools that are not performing up to the level we’d like to see,” Bowen said. “There are a lot of ways you can measure how schools are successful.”

Some of those ways include measuring students’ progress over time, examining graduation rates, requiring students to do performance assessments and talk about their work, and obtaining data on students’ achievement in subjects such as the arts and social studies, in addition to reading, math and science, said David Ruff, executive director of the nonprofit group Great Schools Partnership, based in Portland.

Ruff’s group coordinates the New England Secondary School Consortium, which brings together the education departments of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

“Simply measuring kids and not doing any diagnostic work on what’s going on in a school is not going to change the school, and it’s not going to lead to improved learning for students,” Ruff said. Diagnostic work could include examining the effectiveness of teachers’ instruction, curriculum and assessments.

Schools in School Administrative District 74 — serving Anson, Embden, Solon and New Portland — already use a variety of tests in addition to standardized ones to determine how students are progressing.

That way teachers can intervene early and change instruction accordingly for specific students, Superintendent Ken Coville said. With the tests required by No Child Left Behind, teachers don’t get results until months later.

Donald Reiter, principal of Waterville Senior High School, said No Child Left Behind has frustrated educators, and he’s glad something is being done.

For 100 percent of students to reach the proficiency mark, “without some serious professional development, which takes money, that’s not going to happen just because a law is passed. Teachers are teaching the best they know how,” he said.

Some schools might meet the goal, he said, but they wouldn’t be in working class regions.

“You could pick those schools out right now based on socioeconomic status,” he said.

“Congress has failed to reauthorize and modify No Child Left Behind, so I think it’s really left only one avenue, and that is to request a waiver from the secretary of education,” said John Davis, superintendent in Jackman, where Forest Hills Consolidated School is switching to a standards-based form of education.

Under the model students will advance to the next level when they master material, not when they slide by on a test or reach the end of their school year.

While the premise of No Child Left Behind is beneficial — to not let the scores of failing students be aggregated with scores of high achievers — “to hold children accountable to be at a certain place at a certain date at a certain age, I think, is just a poor understanding of how people learn, grow and develop,” Davis said.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, acknowledged it has been a “huge oversight” of Congress to not rewrite No Child Left Behind before the current recess.

She said she would reserve comment on the waiver request until it is finalized but said she understands the state’s need to submit the request and its desire for flexibility.

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368
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