Anchorage Daily News: Sen. Murkowski’s efforts to change federal education law

The controversial No Child Left Behind Act is due to expire this year, and as Congress works on renewing it, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski wants to fix one of the law’s more glaring problems. No Child Left Behind uses an unfair and unhelpful way to judge how well schools educate children.

Under the law, schools are not judged by what kind of academic progress individual students make while they are at the school. Instead, schools are judged on a very limited snapshot: Do X percent of students who happen to attend the school on testing day get “proficient” scores in math and English?

The ratings take no account of how long a school or a school district has had to educate the student. The student who recently transferred is treated the same as one who has been there since starting kindergarten. Progress is measured by how test scores for this year’s students in a particular grade compare to the previous year’s students in that same grade.

That doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s a snapshot that compares two totally different groups of students in two different years.

What should matter is whether students are making adequate academic progress as they are educated by a particular school or school district.

That’s called a growth model, and that’s what Sen. Murkowski wants to see included in an updated No Child Left Behind Act. Alaska is one of a handful of states that got special federal permission to include growth of test scores as a school rating factor. Sen. Murkowski wants to make sure the option is in place for all states. In talking to the Fairbanks News-Miner last month, she said she won’t support a bill that doesn’t allow growth models.

Growth models are allowed in a draft No Child Left Behind bill being considered in the U.S. House Education Committee. The draft lets states be more flexible in how they rate schools probably too flexible. The House measure has drawn fire for allowing other ways of rating school progress besides student test scores, such as graduation rates or college enrollment. The critics are right to worry about alternative ratings that would relieve the pressure to ensure that all students are learning the basics.

The House version would fix some of the more heavy-handed aspects of No Child Left Behind. Today, schools have to pass muster in 31 categories, covering many different subgroups of students, to made “adequate” progress. It’s an all-or-nothing rating. Miss in just one category, and the school is made to look like a total failure. To fix that, the draft bill distinguishes between schools where just one or two subgroups of students fail to measure up and schools where there are wholesale shortcomings.

No Child Left Behind has been useful because it ramps up the pressure on schools and districts to educate all students. No longer can educators just write off disadvantaged students and those who have fallen behind.

But there is also a danger of going too far the other way. Schools can become so focused on producing the required test scores, they fail to deliver a well-rounded education. There’s a real risk that more advanced students will not be challenged and that art, music and physical activities will get short shrift.

It does seem that Congress is getting the message: No Child Left Behind needs to set more helpful and realistic measures of school performance.

Sept. 15, 2007

The Anchorage Daily News praises federal measures to make college more affordable

It didn’t get a lot of attention, but families and students who struggle to pay for college will get some more help, thanks to a measure Congress passed earlier this month.

To pay for it, Congress will slash subsidies to profit-making student loan companies. In effect, Congress is cutting out the middleman and steering more aid directly to students. The average student graduates with $19,000 of debt, according to the federal Department of Education.

The new aid includes a 25 percent increase in the maximum payment to the neediest students, known as Pell Grants. That boost sounds like a lot, but the new maximum yearly grant is still only $5,400, and it’s phased in over five years.

Congress also cut the interest rate on new need-based loans from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent over the next five years. A pilot project will require private lenders to bid on the right to make federally backed loans in each state. The hope is that open market bidding will drive down interest rates. Students who enter public service careers can get loans forgiven after 10 years.

College lending is an $85 billion business. Reining in subsidies for those lenders was a political struggle made possible by recent scandals in the student loan industry. Several lenders were caught paying kickbacks to college aid officials who steered loan business their way.

The new college aid bill drew wide bipartisan support and President Bush is expected to sign it. Alaska Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski voted for it. Don Young missed the final vote in the House.

A few Republicans complained that the financial aid measure doesn’t do anything to stop escalating college costs. That’s true, but it’s not clear what Congress can do. Surely, Republican critics are not suggesting Congress impose price controls on colleges.

High college costs may be a symptom of the extreme stratification of wealth in the United States today. Colleges can charge astronomical rates because they know economically elite families can easily pay the full bill. For those at the bottom end of the economic ladder, many colleges “discount” their prices by offering grants and scholarships. For most families in the middle, affording college means going to the state university or taking out large loans, or both.

Before this reform, the student loan business was arranged as much for the benefit of loan-makers as for students. Annual subsidies to the student loan industry totaled about $5.5 billion a year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The nation’s biggest private source of student loans, SLM Corp., is being bought out for $25 billion.

Now Congress has shifted course. Subsidies are slashed by 80 percent, with the savings converted into grants and lower-cost loans. For most families, financing college will still be a strain, but the burden will be a little lighter.

Information from: Anchorage Daily News, http://www.adn.com

–Associated Press



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