WASHINGTON – Unable to push education fixes through Congress, the Bush administration is taking its own pen to the No Child Left Behind law.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says she plans to make a host of changes to the education law through regulations being unveiled Tuesday.
Among the biggest changes will be a requirement that by the 2012-13 school year, all states must calculate their high school graduation rates in a uniform way.
States currently use all kinds of methods to determine their graduation rates, many of which are based on unreliable information about school dropouts, leading to overestimates.
States will be told to count graduates, in most cases, as students who leave on time and with a regular degree. Research indicates students who take extra time or get alternatives to diplomas, such as a GED, generally don't do as well in college or the work force.
While states will no longer be able to use their own methods for calculating grad rates, they will still be able set their own goals for getting more students to graduate. Critics say that allows states to set weak improvement goals.
The six-year-old education law is President Bush's signature domestic policy initiative. The law requires testing in reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school. The stated goal is to get all kids working at grade level by 2013-14.
Lawmakers recently tried but were unable to pass an updated version of the law due to disagreements over how to judge schools and teachers, among other things. Without a renewal, the existing law stands.
Spellings has been taking steps in recent months to make changes from her perch. However, the proposed regulations amount to the most comprehensive set of administrative changes she has sought so far.
"The Congress, I guess because of the political and legislative climate, has not been able to get a reauthorization under way this year," Spellings said in an interview. "I know that schools and students need help now, and we are prepared to act administratively."
The regulations call for a federal review of every state policy regarding the exclusion of test scores of students in racial groups deemed too small to be statistically significant or so small that student privacy could be jeopardized. Critics say too many kids' scores are being left aside under these policies.
The regulations also call for school districts to demonstrate that they are doing all they can to notify parents of low-income students in struggling schools that free tutoring is available. If the districts fail to do that, their ability to spend federal funds could be limited under the proposal. The department estimates only 14 percent of eligible students receive tutoring available to them.
An even smaller percentage of kids who are allowed to transfer to higher-performing schools make that switch, in part because they aren't always informed of vacancies on time. The regulations require schools to publicize open spots at least 14 days before school starts.
The administration's proposal also would tighten the rules around the corrective steps schools must take once they've failed to hit progress goals for many consecutive years.
The administration is seeking public comments before finalizing the regulations in the fall.
Regulations can be overturned by a new administration. Spellings said that's unlikely in this case, because the rules she is proposing have widespread support. She said she hoped the ideas would help shape the legislative debate on Capitol Hill whenever the law is revisited there.
"I think these things will help the law work better in the field ... and I think they are ways for the Congress to have a good jumping-off place when they start on their work," she said.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who chairs the Senate education committee, said the regulations "include important improvements for implementing No Child Left Behind."