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The state's 'No Child' report is coming late

Parents this fall aren't getting much chance to transfer their children out of so-called underachieving schools at taxpayer expense.

That's because the state won't know until Thursday how many schools met No Child Left Behind requirements imposed by the federal government.

Parents are supposed to receive reports before the school year starts.

That means Utah is out of compliance with NCLB, just months after rattling chains by passing a law challenging NCLB's reach into state education rights.

But state and district leaders aren't worried about losing money over it.

They say the NCLB report is coming out earlier than ever. And some district testing chiefs worry that faster reporting could sacrifice accuracy.

Still, in the end, low-income children are losing out, advocate Michael Clara said.

"You're giving parents a choice in September to make a decision for that year, and the school has already started for that year," Clara said. "(That's essentially) robbing parents of the opportunity to put children in a school where they can get an education."

No Child Left Behind aims to ensure all children, regardless of race, income or disability, read and do math well by 2014. Progress toward the goal is measured every year.

States set their own plans to hit the target, including tests students will take — in Utah, it's the CRTs at the end of the school year — and how high they must score. The U.S. Department of Education signs off on the plans.

Plans also include how states handle low-income schools receiving Title I funds. If they miss the mark for two consecutive years, they are put on "school improvement," which brings a series of actions until they turn things around.

Utah's plan says districts will designate schools as needing improvement "before the beginning of the school year following failure to make (adequate yearly progress)."

Utah students took the CRTs last spring, so the designations should have been made and letters offering transfer options to parents in under-performing low-income schools sent out by now.

But they haven't.

And some wonder if they ever could be.

NCLB reports have been given in November and December before now. This year, they're expected Sept. 15. The State Office of Education had draft reports to school districts Aug. 15, to meet the required appeals requirement.

"This is the fastest they've ever gotten the test results out, and I appreciate the hours of effort that have gone into it," said Jordan District executive director of curriculum Brenda Hales, who said 400 million bits of information went into Jordan's report alone. "It has been a yeoman's effort."

Utah students take their tests in April. Moving the test up would defeat some of that purpose, state associate superintendent Ray Timothy said.

Utah also has year-round schools, some starting in the summer, meaning reports for them technically should come out by July. That could be virtually impossible, even with online testing; Hales says some demographic data isn't available until after the state fiscal year ends June 30.

"Frankly, I don't think that to be technically possible," Salt Lake City Associate Superintendent Charles Hausman said of earlier reports. "In fact, trying to do so, in my view, would be a huge mistake. We should be focusing on the accuracy of the data, not how quickly we turn it around."

But what about parents who believe their children are not getting a good education where they are? Uprooting kids after school has started is not much of an option.

True, Utah law lets children enroll in any public school they want, so long as there's room. NCLB further opens that choice to low-income parents, who may not have means to safely transport their children to a school across town. Districts have to provide busing under NCLB's school improvement rules.

Clara took issue with late reports in 2002. He filed a complaint with the State Office of Education, saying parents were denied meaningful opportunities to exercise school choice under NCLB.

Still, the federal choice option, required in 16 Utah schools last year, apparently isn't popular.

In 2003-04 school year, 1,980 students were eligible for the service; 62 took advantage of it, Timothy reports. Last year, 6,325 students were eligible; 79 transferred out.

That's between 1 percent and 3 percent each year.

No Jordan District parents took up the offer last year, Hales said. But they did respond to letters offering to bus children to higher-performing schools.

"I had nobody saying, 'You didn't give us the choice at the beginning of the year,' " Hales said. "I had them saying, 'Don't make bad comments about my school.' "

Such sentiment helped form the Utah Legislature's stance.

Lawmakers said NCLB, aimed at shining the light on potentially neglected student groups, was too absolute. Every student group has to have enough children take tests, and do well or progress enough on them to get a thumbs up. One mistake, and the whole school fails to make progress on public reports.

Legislators passed a bill saying Utah schools would prioritize state education goals over federal goals. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington has assured that schools will continue to comply with NCLB, and thus keep federal money.

But Utah's challenge of the federal standards might have invited additional federal scrutiny.

"I'm sure we're under the microscope; everything we do I'm sure gets a second look. And we're concerned about that," Timothy said. "All we can do about that is put forth our best faith effort to do what's right, and that's what we're trying to do . . . If they look at that and so choose to sanction us and have a financial penalty, I guess, so be it."

Fines, however, wouldn't fall on schools, Timothy said. They probably would hit the State Office of Education's administrative budget, because it's the one charged with overseeing NCLB here.

And some district officials question whether fines would come at all. Texas is the only state that Hausman understands has been fined, and that's due to open defiance.

"No one said (Utah) is unwilling to comply," he said. "(Utah) said instead, 'We're going as fast as we can.' I think that's an appropriate position to take. I don't want to sacrifice accuracy. As you rush to manipulate data too quickly, you're just increasing error."

Several states will issue reports after school starts, too.

Arizona and Mississippi, for example, plan their public reports for September, according to a Council of Chief State Officers report provided by the Utah State Office of Education. Arkansas and Washington plan to release information in October and Rhode Island, in November. Twenty-one states gave no release information as of early August, the report states.

The Utah State Office of Education has tried to change its NCLB plan to solve the timing problem. It asked the federal government to let it first offer extra help to students, then choice the following year, instead of the other way around, Timothy said.

The request was denied.

Still, some states seem to be able to report before school starts, the chief state school officers report says. North Carolina and Nevada released theirs in July; Indiana and Wisconsin in June.

But some are going about things differently. Kansas, for instance, is listed as releasing its full report in October. But data on Title I schools was to come in August, the chief state school officers report stats.

Clara believes Utah could make plans like that, too.

"How are other states doing it?" he said. "I think we need to stop looking at NCLB as a curse, because there's a benefit that comes with that legislation, and that's the funding to make the improvement in academics."