The Bush administration is trying to address one of the most common complaints about the No Child Left Behind education law: It treats schools the same, regardless of whether they fail to meet annual benchmarks by a little or a lot.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings plans to announce Tuesday that she wants states to submit proposals for assigning different consequences to schools based on the degree to which they miss annual progress goals.
Those goals are largely based on reading and math tests given in grades three through eight and once in high school. Schools are judged not just on average scores but according to how groups of students perform — such as those with disabilities, limited English skills or minorities.
Educators have complained that the consequences for failing to hit yearly progress goals are the same for schools in which one group of students misses the mark as it is for schools in which many groups or many grades fail to hit targets.
The law spells out specific steps schools have to take for failing to make "adequate yearly progress," a category about 30 percent of schools fall into. For example, the law says students in such schools — at certain points — must first be given the chance to transfer out and then must receive tutoring.
The new initiative will allow states to distinguish between "on-fire schools and those with a smolder," Spellings said in an interview Monday.
States will be able to tailor consequences toward specific problem areas. Spellings likened it to diagnosing an illness and then prescribing a cure. She also said it would lead to more efficient use of resources.
Spellings plans to outline the proposal during a visit to St. Paul, Minn. Only a limited number of states — 10 in all — will be able to participate at first.
Spellings said states must submit proposals by May and that only carefully thought-out plans would get a green light.
"Not every state will meet the core principles that are required," she said. "This is complicated stuff that requires sound data systems, good reporting systems."
The administration recently expanded to all states a similar pilot plan that gives states flexibility in tracking student progress over time.
No Child Left Behind calls for student progress to be measured with an eye toward getting all kids doing math and reading on grade level by 2014. Spellings said that goal remains unchanged, though many have called it unrealistic.
The six-year-old education law is up for renewal in Congress, but lawmakers trying to advance it haven't gained much traction. Without congressional action, the existing law remains in place.
Spellings said she didn't think her efforts to improve the law through administrative action would further stymie efforts on Capitol Hill.
"Plan A continues to be getting a good law done as soon as possible," she said.