By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The state's top education official applauded Montana educators' willingness to talk openly about the difficulty of meeting the requirements of No Child Left Behind.
"We have been in national media oulets," including the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, said Linda McCulloch, state superintendent of the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
Attending a meeting of the Hi-Line Association of School Superintendents in Havre Tuesday afternoon, McCulloch told the educators that they have been open and honest with school boards and the media about the obstacles they face trying to meet President Bush's sweeping education reform law.
The law requires all federally funded schools to meet strict new standards in testing, attendance and graduation for all students. Montana's great distances and rural schools make some of the law's requirements - like those governing which teachers are considered "highly qualified" - difficult to implement.
"Montana has garnered a lot of attention from across the country early on because we have raised these questions," she said, adding that she has received "wonderful comments" from other states where officials have not been willing to criticize the the law publicly.
McCulloch said that in the future, she may call on the superintendents to tell federal education officials about their experiences with the law.
McCulloch also told the more than 20 educators from area schools and Montana State University-Northern attending the meeting that she has requested some changes to the requirements of No Child Left Behind.
At least one of those requests will not be granted, at least not until after November, she said.
In late March a group of state superintendents met with President Bush to request changing the law to allow teachers with broad-field social studies degrees to be considered "highly qualified" without needing to have a degree or take a test in each subject they teach, as the law now requires.
The requirement is considered particularly cumbersome in rural states, where teachers often teach multiple social science subjects.
Such a change would mirror new rules announced recently by the U.S. Department of Education allowing states some leeway on determining which teachers with broad-field science degrees are highly qualified.
But President Bush told the group he will not consider an amendment to the law in the near future, McCulloch said.
"The president made it very clear - very clear - that there will be no amendments to the No Child Left Behind law, at least until the November election," she said.
After the meeting McCulloch said she does not know what Bush's statement will mean for Montana's efforts to comply with No Child Left Behind.
"I think so many things hinge on the election in November," she said.
A U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman said this morning she could not immediately comment.
The two other requests made to the federal government recently are more likely to be granted, McCulloch told the group.
First, Montana applied in March for an extension of the Aug. 1 deadline to determine the test scores that qualify as proficient under the law. Those test scores help determine which students made adequate yearly progress, the law's equivalent of a passing grade.
After the meeting she said the extension of the deadline is necessary because it will take extra time to adapt the results of the new criterion-referenced tests to the adequate yearly progress designation.
McCulloch said she is "pretty sure" the request will be granted, and that the state will probably have until the end of the summer to decide how to incorporate the new results.
The second request Montana made was for more leeway to the rules regarding the number of special education students who can be exempted from the law's requirements.
As the law is written, only 1 percent of the students in a school can be exempted from the testing requirements because they are special education students taking an alternate test. The small size of Montana schools means that about 85 percent of Montana schools would not be eligible to exempt a single student under the rule, McCulloch said.
That makes it more likely that an entire school would not make AYP because a small group of students did not meet the test score requirements.
Montana and most other states have applied to allow schools to exempt up to two students from the testing requirements, she said.
Those requests come on the heels of a decision from the U.S. Department of Education in March giving states more flexibility in dealing with certain areas of the new law.
The changes allow states to develop an evaluation method so teachers can demonstrate they are highly qualified in each of their subjects without having to give a separate assessment for each subject. States can allow science teachers to show they are highly qualified in the broad field of science, and can decide whether to require mastery of individual science disciplines. They also give teachers in rural school districts - nearly all of the districts in Montana, according to the federal definition of "rural" - who are qualified in at least one subject an extra year to become highly qualified in the additional subjects they teach.
McCulloch said she believes some of the flexibility is due to the January hiring of Raymond Simon, former director of the Arkansas Department of Education, as the U.S. Department of Education's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. Because of his background in state education, Simon has been receptive to the concerns of the states trying to comply with the law, McCulloch said.
"We have a direct line to him and that's been very good for us," she said.
McCulloch spoke frankly about her opinion of the law.
"Frankly I think we're leaving whole schools behind ... and we're not acknowledging that students have made progress," she said.
"One of the things about No Child Left Behind that angers me the most ... is that it's been abusive of the folks in my office," she said. Many of her staff will never get to take all of the comp time they have amassed dealing with No Child Left Behind, she said.