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Some states to get more latitude in gauging students' progress

US to allow tracking growth over time

WASHINGTON -- Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told state school chiefs yesterday that some of them will win freedom in the area they worry about most: showing student progress. But every child must still be up to par in reading and math by 2014, she said.

Spellings announced she will let up to 10 states measure student progress by tracking students over time, her latest effort to be flexible in enforcing President Bush's education law.

Until now, states could meet their annual goals only by comparing the scores of different groups of students from one year to the next, a system that many educators consider unfair.

The policy change, first outlined in a story Thursday by the Associated Press, drew praise from state leaders and teachers unions. But watchdog groups said any state that changes its grading system must be clear with the public about how students will benefit.

Although the way that progress is measured is a technical issue, it is hugely important to schools and the millions of students they educate.

Schools that get federal poverty aid and do not make enough yearly progress face federal penalties, and states have been clamoring for new ways to chart how their students perform.

Some states already look at academic growth by individual students over time. But Spellings's announcement yesterday marks the first time the federal government will allow it.

Yet growth alone is not enough, Spellings told chief state school officers gathering in Richmond, Va. Bush's No Child Left Behind law still requires all students to be ''proficient" in reading and math by 2014, which Spellings considers to mean grade-level work. ''We must not -- and I will not -- back away from this important goal," Spellings said.

Any state can apply for the new flexibility, although in practical terms, many will not qualify because they do not have data systems to track students across grades. The department yesterday announced $53 million in grants for 14 states to start creating such systems.

''It is important to determine whether or not all students are meeting state standards," said Pat Burke, chief policy officer for the Oregon Department of Education. ''But the notion of school progress and growth has been missing from these calculations. This new flexibility gives us an opportunity to add that very important dimension to how we look at schools."

The Massachusetts Department of Education intends to apply to be judged on student achievement growth, said department spokeswoman Heidi Perlman. The department is creating a database to track individual students' MCAS scores over time, but that would not be finished for two more years.

The success of any ''growth model" comes down to how it is designed, said Kati Haycock, director of The Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority children. Lower-performing children, for example, should be expected to show more growth so they catch up.

''This can't be about using growth models to let schools, districts, and states off the hook," Haycock said.

The Education Department, eager to show it is not weakening the law, will require states to take many steps before they can qualify for the ''growth" option.

States must have data systems to track individual students, close achievement gaps between whites and minorities, and prove that they have at least one year of base-line testing. The law requires yearly testing in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.

Scott Palmer, a consultant to the Council of Chief State School Officers, said Spellings' decision is another good-faith effort to make the law work. Tracking individual students may isolate more clearly where help is needed and how to provide it, Palmer said. ''The thing that states are seeking is not the chance to get out of anything, but rather the opportunity to raise the bar," said Palmer, who advised the department on the policy.

Both major teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, expressed support. ''This is something we've been seeking for a long time," said John Mitchell, deputy director of educational issues at the federation.

The NEA has listed what it calls absurd cases of schools that show improvement and yet don't meet federal goals because of the way ''adequate yearly progress" is measured.

Globe staffer Tracy Jan contributed to this report from Boston.

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