CLEVELAND » Ginn Academy, the first and only public high school in Ohio just for boys, was conceived to help at-risk students make it through school – experimenting with small classes, a tough discipline code and life coaches around the clock.
Its graduation rate was close to 88 percent last year, compared with 64 percent for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District as a whole. And it has enjoyed some other victories. There is the junior whose test scores are weak but who regularly volunteers at a food bank. And the senior proudly set to graduate this spring who used to attend school so irregularly that he had to be collected at home each morning by a staff member.
But under No Child Left Behind, the signature education initiative of the George W. Bush administration, the academy, which opened in 2007, was consistently labeled low performing because it did not make the required "adequate yearly progress" in raising test scores.
Nicholas A. Petty, the principal, said, "I wouldn’t say stop making us be judged by the tests at all, but get a better system that really monitors students on more of an individual basis."
As Congress debates a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law, Petty may well see that happen.
The law, which was intended to make sure schools were educating children, particularly the neediest, ushered in an era of high-stakes testing to measure student progress. After more than a decade, the proliferation of tests, along with punishments for schools that failed to improve their scores, has angered parents and teachers. It has also set off protests and boycotts of testing.
Congress needs to find a way to "let 1,000 flowers bloom" and back away from a punitive approach to controlling schools, said Robert C. Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.
A rewrite of the law could collapse in partisan disarray as in past years. But it could also herald a new era of education, keeping some testing but eliminating prescriptive punishments for schools.
At the same time, it could allow some states to lower their academic standards and others to reduce the amount of federal money flowing to schools that serve the poorest children.
No Child Left Behind was a bipartisan effort that was intended to help schools improve reading and math in the third to eighth grades. The law required that every child in the nation be proficient by 2014 in those subjects, as measured by standardized tests. Cascading punishments – beginning with mandated tutoring and going all the way to school takeover – were imposed on schools that failed to make sufficient progress toward this goal.
As Arne Duncan, the education secretary, put it in a speech this year, the law, formally a reauthorization of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act, "created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed or to reward success."
As almost all schools began to fall into the failing category – and a partisan logjam kept Congress from reauthorizing the law when it expired eight years ago – the Obama administration began granting states waivers from its requirements.
Over the past three years, schools in all but a few states have been given waivers, allowing them to show success through measures other than test scores and eliminating the 2014 deadline for universal proficiency.
Those waivers, though, came with conditions. Among them were that states adopt academic standards like the Common Core, which defines what students need to know and be able to do between kindergarten and high school graduation, and that they agree to base teacher evaluations in part on test scores.
Parents have been rebelling against new tests based on the Common Core, and many Republicans, as well as a group from the left, see these requirements as a federal power grab in an area traditionally governed by the states. Those lawmakers are determined to keep the requirements out of the reauthorization. Leading Democrats and many civil rights groups, though, worry about giving too much control back to the states.
"The worry is that if you leave it to the states, they will drop the ball, as they did in the past," said Martin West, who studies the politics of kindergarten through high school education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
No Child Left Behind required the public release of test scores by race, sex, disability and family income. The release of those subgroups’ scores is broadly considered a success, bringing transparency that focused attention on children needing the most assistance, and helping to shrink achievement gaps.
Before No Child Left Behind, 17 states had no accountability systems for their schools, and only two states looked specifically at how well their low-income or minority students were doing. And even after the law went into effect, some states wrote easier exams or lowered their passing scores to inflate the number of students deemed proficient.
Any new legislation will most likely still require annual testing and the public release of test scores of subgroups of children. But a new bill would also probably jettison the system of punishments for schools that fail to improve scores, giving states broad discretion in handling low-performing schools.
Passage of a new law is complicated because of divisions within the parties and also because the Republican majority in Congress would still need some Democratic support to overcome any possible veto by President Barack Obama.
Last month, a Republican bill that would eliminate the adequate yearly progress requirements and forbid the federal government to push states into adopting the Common Core sailed through the House Education Committee. It was then scheduled for debate.
Mid-debate, though, the vote was pulled when it became clear it would not pass, with a number of conservative Republicans believing it did not go far enough in restraining federal authority over education. The vote has not yet been rescheduled.
Now Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking minority member, are writing a bill they expect to have ready next month.
Another critical education issue is also playing out in Congress. Under the House bill, schools with the highest concentration of poor students could have received less federal money than under the current law. Obama has threatened to veto any law that would do that.
Duncan said the bill could lead to a loss of $3 billion in federal funding over six years for the neediest districts. Republicans disputed that figure because the change in federal funding would be an option, not a requirement, and Duncan’s figures were based on the administration’s proposed budget, not on actual spending.
The Philadelphia School District – which has cut 5,000 jobs and closed 31 schools in two years and faces an $80 million deficit for the next fiscal year – stood to lose $78 million in federal money under the House bill, according to administration figures.
At the George W. Nebinger School in Philadelphia, which teaches kindergarten through eighth grade, there is plenty of worry about whether the money will continue.
Anh Brown, who became principal of Nebinger two years ago, the same year Pennsylvania got its No Child Left Behind waiver, said her school was on a good trajectory. Scores on the state tests are still middling, but enrollment has risen to 330 students, from 268 in 2013 – Brown would like 400 – and attendance last year was 95 percent, up from 93 percent two years ago.
One recent morning, the art room was filled with the happy hum of first-graders drawing Oaxacan spirit animals: One boy gave his beast red eyes – "demon eyes," he said, with obvious relish – as the girl next to him drew a neat row of triangles across her creature’s chest.
But Brown pays for the art teacher’s salary with federal money, and if that money is cut, she will have to drop the position.
"I am concerned because I believe the arts are important," Brown said. "They give children more reasons to come to school."
Motoko Rich and Tamar Lewin, New York Times