There's more to the story of Texas defying NCLB
Both the Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News have the story about the Texas Education Agency not following a federal rule, regarding special education testing, in the No Child Left Behind act. That allowed many Texas school districts to achieve an "adequate yearly progress" grade, instead of being placed in the "needs improvement" category.
I think it's worth exploring a bit more what is behind the TEA's decision and why it does not mean that Texas schools are poorly educating their students. Between the two stories, the DMN's has better background and details to understand what happened and why.
The NCLB act has good goals -- but it also has flaws. One of those flaws is related to special education students. What happens is that in every school there are special ed students who are not able to take the standardized state assessment test (which determines NCLB grades), in this case TAKS; those students take a state-developed alternate assessment test, instead. NCLB says that no more than one percent of a school's and a district's student population can take the alternate skills assessment test, if they want to achieve the "adequate yearly progress" grade and not lose federal NCLB funding. According to the DMN story, 12 percent of Texas students are classified as special ed students, and last year nine percent of special ed students took the alternate test. So to meet NCLB standards, eight percent of students would have been considered automatic (artificial) failures.
I think it's important to note the wide scope and numerous categories of special education, including mental retardation, attention deficit disorder, hearing impairment, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, communication disorders, serious emotional disturbance, and visual impairment. Some of the categories have categories. Children who are in speech programs and, in some states, even gifted programs are classified as special ed. Of course, not all students classified as special ed need to take the alternate skills test, and according to the numbers in the DMN story, three percent of Texas' special ed students didn't take the alternate test. But many states have complained that the one percent rule is too low.
Also from the DMN story we learn that when Texas school districts conducted testing last year, the NCLB's one percent rule had not yet been released. So Texas school districts didn't willfully disregard a NCLB rule; they didn't know about it yet. We don't know if the TEA knew there was a possibility that the NCLB rule would be one percent, but school districts must follow state guidelines and at the time testing was done, the federal rule had not been finalized and districts conducted their tests according to TEA guidelines.
This also highlights the problem with having one federal standard apply to all 50 states. There is a world of difference between school districts in Texas and Florida, and ones in, say, Wisconsin and Minnesota. I would argue that states with higher immigrant student populations have a greater number of special education students. It's common sense. Therefore it's very hard to have one measuring standard and expect all school districts, across the country, to meet it.
In fact, this very problem has persuaded Utah to forego NCLB funding:
Utah's state Legislature is poised to repudiate the No Child Left Behind Act and spurn $116 million in federal aid tied to it because state policy-makers are fed up with federal control of education and dictates.
The state has been demanding more flexibility in required student testing to measure reading and math achievement, saying handicapped students and children with learning disabilities in special education cannot keep pace with other students.
State officials contend that the law is unfair because it labels schools "in need of improvement" if even one subgroup of students, such as those in special education, fail to make "adequate yearly progress" in reading or math two years in a row.
The state has more than 20,000 first- through third-graders who don't read at grade level, including a disproportionate number of special-education students and children whose primary language is not English.
And that's what I was also going to suggest: just because one standard wasn't met doesn't mean a school district is failing to educate its students adequately. This sentence from the DMN story is important:
Officials also confirmed that Texas, for the first time, failed to meet the adequacy benchmark for states because it fell short in one of 29 measures that are evaluated under federal law. The markdown was for reading performance by special-education students – about 12 percent of the state's enrollment.
Texas missed one measure out of 29 and that was for reading performance by special education students. That appears to be why the TEA is defying the one percent special education-testing rule.