ATLANTA — Nearly half of America's public schools didn't meet federal achievement standards this year, marking the largest failure rate since the much-criticized No Child Left Behind Law took effect a decade ago, according to a national report released Thursday.
The Center on Education Policy report shows more than 43,000 schools — or 48 percent — did not make "adequate yearly progress" this year. The failure rates range from a low of 11 percent in Wisconsin to a high of 89 percent in Florida.
The findings are far below the 82 percent failure rate that Education Secretary Arne Duncan predicted earlier this year but still indicate an alarming trend that Duncan hopes to address by granting states relief from the federal law. The law requires states to have every student performing at grade level in math and reading by 2014, which most educators agree is an impossible goal.
"Whether it's 50 percent, 80 percent or 100 percent of schools being incorrectly labeled as failing, one thing is clear: No Child Left Behind is broken," Duncan said in a statement Wednesday. "That's why we're moving forward with giving states flexibility from the law in exchange for reforms that protect children and drive student success."
State scores varied wildly. For example, in Georgia, 27 percent of schools did not meet targets, compared to 81 percent in Massachusetts and 16 percent in Kansas.
That's because some states have harder tests or have high numbers of immigrant and low-income children, center officials said. It's also because the law requires states to raise the bar each year for how many children must pass the test, and some states put off the largest increase until this year to avoid sanctions.
The numbers indicate what federal officials have been saying for more than a year — that the law, which is four years overdue for a rewrite, is "too crude a measure" to accurately depict what's happening in schools, said Jack Jennings, president of the Washington, D.C.-based center. An overhaul of the law has become mired in the partisan atmosphere in Congress, with lawmakers disagreeing over how to fix it.
"No Child Left Behind is defective," Jennings told The Associated Press. "It needs to be changed. If Congress can't do it, then the administration is right to move ahead with waivers."
Waivers fix the immediate problem but likely will make it much more difficult for parents to understand how schools are rated because progress will no longer be based on just one test score.
Under the 11 waivers already filed, states are asking to use a variety of factors to determine whether they pass muster and to choose how schools will be punished if they don't improve.
Those factors range from including college-entrance exam scores to adding the performance of students on Advanced Placement tests.
At least 39 states, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, have said they will file waivers, though it is unclear how many will get approved.
Republicans in Congress say Duncan and President Barack Obama are using the waivers to push a "backdoor education agenda" that will ultimately let schools off the hook.
"The law needs to be fixed and it needs to be fixed in Congress and not by executive action," House education committee Chairman John Kline, a Republican from Minnesota, said in September after Obama announced the waivers.
Under No Child Left Behind, states that have tough standards are punished and schools that make progress but don't hit benchmarks get treated the same as schools that see a performance dip, Jennings said.
"A lot of educators saw the weaknesses in No Child Left Behind even when it was rolled out — that this day and time would come," said Georgia schools Superintendent John Barge. "It's kind of a train wreck that we all see happening."
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