President Bush, acknowledging public frustration over his No Child Left Behind Act, said Thursday the point of the law is not to punish schools that fall short, but to help them.
Bush suggested the White House and its allies must do a better job of explaining the goal of holding schools accountable.
Congress is working on renewing the law, which remains unpopular in many districts nationwide.
"It is important for all of us to make it clear that accountability is not a way to punish anybody," Bush told supporters of the law in a meeting at the White House. "It's an essential component to making sure that our system, our education system, frankly is not discriminatory."
Bush got unified support from the group of business, education and civil rights leaders he invited to the Roosevelt Room. They spoke of economic competitiveness and social justice.
Setting the bar too law
But even his friendly audience pointed out flaws in the law.
The most common concern was that some states - free to determine their own academic standards - are manipulating the law by setting the bar too low for students.
"There have been some states that have been attempting to skirt the act by, in effect, dumbing down their curriculum," said Paul Vallas, CEO of the Philadelphia School District.
No Child Left Behind, approved by Congress early in Bush's first term, is the biggest federal act in a generation. Politically, it is also vital to Bush's agenda and his legacy.
Schools that receive federal aid face sanctions if they don't show yearly progress among their students, including poor children, minorities and limited-English learners.
The result is that schools must give more attention to kids who often struggle the most.
Accountability or punishment
Many parents and teachers say schools put too much emphasis on getting kids to pass tests. Bush's support of private-school vouchers has also made critics suspicious of his intentions.
The president seemed aware of these perceptions.
"It's really important for the citizens to understand that I'm a huge believer in the public school systems," Bush said. "I believe our public schools have really made America."
The White House allowed two reporters to sit in on Bush's meeting.
Hodgepodge of standards
Bush appears to have enough bipartisan support to get the law renewed with its core elements intact, although conservative Republicans oppose it on grounds that it is a federal intrusion.
The law orders states to test children in reading and math in grades three through eight, and once in high school.
Bush offered no commitment on the issue of getting states to raise their standards. Instead, he defended local control and opposed the idea of judging schools based on a federal test.
The status quo, though isn't working, Bush was told time and again. State standards are a hodgepodge nationwide, although many states have committed to improve those standards.
Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform and a participant in the meeting, said after that Bush realizes the law needs work - without being weakened.
"He was familiar with the rhetoric, and with the fact that it's very difficult for parents to negotiate No Child Left Behind," Allen said. "He knows the challenges and the perceptions."