School officials have often griped that under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools that miss only a single achievement target — math scores for special education students, for example — are labeled and sanctioned the same way as schools that miss many targets.

Now, the federal government will allow some states to relax that standard. The Chicago Tribune wrote:

Under a plan unveiled by U.S. Sec. of Education Margaret Spellings, states would be allowed to differentiate how they label — and punish —schools, based on the degree to which a given school fails to meet No Child Left Behind standards.

A school that missed only one achievement target, for example, could get a more favorable label and less severe sanctions than a school that missed several achievement goals.

“This will not change the guts of No Child Left Behind accountability,” Spellings said during a conference call with reporters. “However, it gives states the opportunity to describe the range of schools that meet and do not meet in different ways.”

Spellings plans to grant the leeway to up to 10 states that submit pilot projects this spring. The programs would not require a change in law.

In exchange, chosen states would agree to target their efforts and resources toward helping the most chronically failing schools, which nationally, have shown minimal progress.

San Diego schools have shared the frustration with the law’s strict requirements. In California, those requirements will rapidly become more onerous in school year 2008-2009 and beyond, as the bar rises dramatically for test scores. Other states adopted more gradual timelines.

But the proposal has critics as well:

Some educators and policymakers praised Spellings’ proposal. But Michael Petrilli, who served in the Education Department during President George Bush’s first term and now works for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, likened it to a “suburban schools relief act.”

“This proposal creates a real risk that we could step back from the pressure currently on suburban schools to close the achievement gap and get all students up to proficiency,” said Petrilli, vice president of the conservative think tank. “Depending on how it’s implemented, you can imagine suburban schools that are not making the grade for African-American or poor students, for example, will no longer feel the pressure under NCLB to address these problems.”

EMILY ALPERT

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