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Bloomberg News

Obama Overstated Failing Schools Under U.S. Law, Study Finds

December 15, 2011

Dec. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Almost half of U.S. public schools are labeled failing under the federal No Child Left Behind law, compared with the 80 percent estimate President Barack Obama’s administration cited as a rationale for changing its mandates, a study found.

The estimated percentage of schools that didn’t show adequate progress toward passing state standardized tests of math and reading was 48 percent in 2011, a record and an increase from 39 percent in 2010, according to a report today by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based nonpartisan research group.

Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan cited the 80 percent figure this year in justifying a plan to offer waivers to the law for states that agree to abide by the administration’s education agenda, including tying teacher evaluations to student performance. Congress is also considering a rewrite of the legislation. The lower estimate still shows the need for change, said Jack Jennings, the center’s president.

“Whether it’s 50 percent or 80 percent, the law is too crude a measure of what is considered failing,” Jennings said in a phone interview. “The law is defective, and Duncan is right to want to change it.”

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind law, which was also supported by Democrats including the late Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy. The legislation requires all children to pass those tests by 2014 --and make progress toward that goal each year -- or risk losing federal funds.

Florida, Wisconsin

The center analyzed state reports submitted to the U.S. Department of Education or interviewed staff in state governments, according to the report. The percentage of failing schools varied from state to state, from about 11 percent in Wisconsin to about 89 percent in Florida.

Under No Child Left Behind, each state establishes its own proficiency tests and determines what constitutes passing. That system penalized states with higher standards and gives them an incentive to dumb down tests, Duncan has said. In addition, high-performing schools can be labeled failing if a subgroup of students -- such as students with disabilities or those who speak English as a second language -- don’t pass tests.

The administration is studying why its projection this year was higher, said Peter Cunningham, an assistant education secretary. It could be due to changes in state policies regarding testing or an improvement in student achievement, he said.

“The trend is still clear,” Cunningham said in a phone interview. “More and more schools are being labeled failing, triggering a one-size-fits-all response under No Child Left Behind. States need more flexibility. That’s why we need to fix the law.”

--Editors: Cecile Daurat, Niamh Ring

To contact the reporters on this story: John Hechinger in Boston at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman at

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