No Child Left Behind provides for one-year waivers in the event of natural disasters. Section 1111(b)(3)(C)(vii) of the law states:
"The Secretary may provide the State 1 additional year if the State demonstrates that exceptional or uncontrollable circumstances, such as a natural disaster or a precipitous and unforeseen decline in the financial resources of the State, prevented full implementation of the academic assessments by that deadline and that the State will complete implementation within the additional 1-year period."
Despite this statute language, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings initially expressed unwillingness to grant waivers to schools affected by Katrina. For weeks, schools waited in limbo until she reluctantly agreed to allow automatic one-year waivers from accountability standards -- but only for those Gulf Coast schools that were destroyed or severely damaged. In effect, the secretary's compassionate flexibility amounted to this: Schools that no longer exist and have no students to teach, much less test, will not be punished failure to meet their "adequate yearly progress" targets.
In spite of the exemptions for some Gulf Coast schools, Spellings insists students who are victims of Katrina -- no matter where they are, no matter how disrupted their lives may be, and regardless of how they have suffered -- will still be forced to take standardized tests.
Moreover, those schools that have taken in student evacuees, thereby straining their fiscal resources and jeopardizing their adequate yearly progress ratings, will not receive automatic exemptions from federal punishment.
Consider that No Child Left Behind based on three central assumptions: Teachers and schools are responsible for 100 percent of student learning, regardless of individual differences in children's cognitive abilities or their emotional problems; the standardized tests that determine a school's passing or "needs improvement" status are 100 percent valid as indicators of student learning and of school and teacher performance; and punishing schools that underperform will close the achievement gap and improve public education.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina assails each assumption. Before Katrina, the law did not acknowledge, much less forgive, any extenuating, outside factors such as poverty, abuse, motivation, or even the ability to speak and read English -- all factors that could compromise student performance on standardized tests. Consequently, the Bush administration cannot afford to concede that personal trauma can confound the validity of test scores for Katrina's victims, because to do so is to concede that the same factors can affect any student in any school, albeit less visibly and with a less resounding outcry from the public than we've witnessed for the evacuees.
If the federal government agreed to exempt from testing those children who lost a family member as a result of Katrina, wouldn't it also be pressured to exempt children not affected by Katrina who have suffered a similar life-altering trauma, or others who have suffered from abuse or the challenges of a physical or mental disability?
And if the administration agreed that being ripped from a familiar setting and put into a strange school is an extenuating factor for the victims of Katrina, wouldn't it also be pressured to apply the same standard to the children of migrant workers, or children who have been moved from one foster home to another, or homeless children? By logical extension, wouldn't the federal government be forced to admit that schools with large numbers of transient and homeless students cannot be held to the same standards that more affluent suburban schools with relatively stable populations are?
Katrina has put federal policy squarely between a rock and a hard place. The government cannot appear to be compassionate and yet adhere to a rigid policy of standardizing education. Compassion is personal. Standardization is not.
The No Child Left Behind law was in trouble and facing rebellion from angry states and districts even before Katrina. What that massive natural disaster did was sharpen our focus. It has forced us to look at the inequities schools all over the country must deal with on a daily basis, with or without a hurricane. These are inequities that the law simply ignores. Katrina has reminded us that schools are made up of students who are unique and who have very human problems -- every last one of them.
The obvious inequities in the system and the unimaginable suffering of so many have converged into the perfect storm and may well deliver the deathblow to the critically wounded policy of No Child Left Behind...
Let us hope that she is correct.