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White House seeks changes to education law

The Obama administration is committed to the testing and school accountability at the heart of the No Child Left Behind law but wants other changes, Education Secretary Arne Duncan says.
Education Secretary NH
Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks during a forum on responsible fatherhood in Manchester, N.H., Wednesday.Jim Cole / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Obama administration is committed to the testing and school accountability at the heart of the No Child Left Behind law championed by former President George W. Bush, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

In a speech prepared for delivery Thursday, Duncan gave the law credit for shining a spotlight on kids who need the most help. No Child Left Behind pushes schools to boost the performance of minority and poor children, who lag behind their white peers on standardized tests.

Duncan said there is plenty he wants to change about the law. He agreed with critics that standardized tests are not ideal measures of student achievement. Yet "they are the best we have at the moment," Duncan said.

"Until states develop better assessments," he said, "we must rely on standardized tests to monitor progress."

Duncan noted the administration is giving states money through the economic stimulus law to come up with better assessments.

He planned to make the speech in a meeting with leaders of more than 160 different groups at the Education Department. Thursday's was the first in a series of meetings with the groups. In the speech, he said the administration wants their input before making a formal proposal.

'We can't wait any longer'
Whatever the administration decides to do, it needs the approval of Congress, which passed the law with broad bipartisan support in 2001 but deadlocked over a rewrite in 2007. Lawmakers plan to try again in 2010.

Duncan said kids can't afford more delays. After nearly half a century of direct federal involvement in schools, he said, "we are still waiting for the day when every child in America has a high quality education that prepares him or her for the future.

"We're still waiting, and we can't wait any longer," he said.

While the law has helped improve the academic performance of many minority kids, English-language learners and kids with disabilities, critics say the law is too punitive: More than a third of schools failed to meet yearly progress goals last year, according to the Education Week newspaper.

That means millions of children are a long way from reaching the law's ambitious goals. The law pushes schools to improve test scores each year, so that every student can read and do math on grade level by the year 2014.

Opponents insist the law's annual reading and math tests have squeezed subjects like music and art out of the classroom and that schools were promised billions of dollars they never received.