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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later this hour, move over Madonna. He's a fresh new voice with a most un-pop past. From child star to Yeshiva to the gay dance clubs, Ari Gold talks about his life and music.

But first, it's June. And around the country, report cards are coming in - not only for students, but for schools. They are learning whether they've made the grade on a tough testing standards laid out by No Child Left Behind. President Bush signed that act into law five years ago. Now it's up for now up for reauthorization in the Senate. So today we're asking, is it working?

Joining me now to help answer that question are two education reporters who've spent years covering the issue. Kate Grossman writes for the Chicago Sun-Times. She joins us from our Chicago bureau. David Hoff is an associate editor at Education Week. He's here in the studio in Washington.

Thank you both for joining us.

Mr. DAVID HOFF (Associate Editor, Education Week): Thank you.

Ms. KATE GROSSMAN (Journalist, Chicago Sun-Times): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: David, let me start with you. What was this law intended to accomplish? What kinds of standard does it lay out?

Mr. HOFF: This law was intended to get the federal government involved in the standards base reforms that had been going on dating back into the '90s. And it was intended to require states that use federal money to address their children's needs in low income areas in ways to make sure that that money way helping students.

MARTIN: And nationally, what is the consensus - if there is any such thing as a consensus on this? Do the people who watch this think that it's achieving any results over the last five years?

Mr. HOFF: We're starting to see some evidence that some people believe show that kids are performing better. Most recently, a report looked at test scores in every state and found that in general, those test scores have gone up since 2002. And in the states that had tests that predated 2002 and continued on, the increases in student achievement went faster after 2002 than they had before.

Now you can't attribute that directly to this law. But this law is probably one of the primary policies that has been driving changes in schools and in states over that five-year period. So those who like this law are taking that as evidence that the law is working.

MARTIN: And those who don't like it?

Mr. HOFF: I think they're acknowledging that schools can raise test scores given pressure to do so, but they question whether or not that's all schools should be doing.

MARTIN: Kate, what about you? How is No Child Left Behind received when it was first introduced in Illinois?

Ms. GROSSMAN: Very poorly. It was hated. That would be probably the best way to describe it. Teachers, school administrators from the top and down to the bottom thought it was onerous, heavy-handed, punitive and not helpful for schools.

The reasons why are because the central piece of it is testing. And more than that, it was what the results meant for schools. If schools don't meet some testing benchmarks that the law sets every year, basically, what it calls for is all kids to read at grade level and do math at grade level by 2014. And it sort of has escalating targets. So it started here in Illinois at 40 percent of the kids at grade level, and now I think it's up at 55 percent. So it goes up a little bit every year.

So if you don't make the targets, which a lot of schools don't - particularly low-income, high-minority schools, they face sanctions. They - in the beginning they have to offer kids to transfer out. Then they have to offer tutoring, and it sort of escalates form there until after six years of failing to meet these testing goals, you can face really severe consequences. The state could take over your school. You could - have to shut down and reopen as a charter school. You could fire all the staff. And that's pretty tough stuff, and a lot of pressure on teachers for a goal that they don't think is necessarily reachable.

MARTIN: You mentioned that the schools can be subjected to sanctions if they don't achieve certain targets. Have any of those sanctions been handed out in Illinois? I mean, have schools been forced to fire people? Have they had to - have they been forced to allow people to transfer?

Ms. GROSSMAN: They have. Illinois had an accountability system that predated No Child Left Behind. So even though the law is only five years old, we have schools that are - have failed six years or more because of their record.

MARTIN: You said that the law was hated when it was first introduced. I want to ask you two things: How much had this criticism political and ideological? You know, big cities tend to be more Democratic, have more union involvement in the schools, tend to be more liberal, don't particularly like President Bush and anything he stands for. So how much of the opposition is political?

Ms. GROSSMAN: I mean, I think that's a piece of it. I think people probably pr-exposed in a liberal environment like Chicago not to like it, but I think it's much more than that. I think people really felt it was a tremendous burden that they didn't think was going to be particularly helpful and only a distraction.

MARTIN: And how did they feel now, five years into it? Has any of that attitude changed at all?

Ms. GROSSMAN: Sure. I think it has softened tremendously. You don't hear a lot of outcry against the law. I think people have sort of accepted, adjusted, acknowledged it was a fait accompli and that this was life as we know it. And I think there have been the begrudging acknowledgement of a few good things that have come out of the law.

You know, one of the centerpieces is called No Child Left Behind. And so that means every kid has to meet these testing benchmarks. Instead of just looking at the overall scores at a the school, they get broken down into subgroups. So that means all the African-American kids have to meet it. All the limited English students have to meet it. All the low-income kids have to meet it. You can't hide any groups of kids, sort of gloss over and look at the group as a whole. And people think that's very important. This has been what they called the achievement gap, which is basically that white students outperform minority students and low-income students.

MARTIN: We're talking about No Child Left Behind with Chicago Sun-Times reporter Kate Grossman and David Hoff, associate editor at Education Week.

Kate, briefly, has Illinois seen an improvement in test scores like the kind that David was talking about nationally?

Ms. GROSSMAN: Yes. We've seen pretty significant improvement in test scores. But there is a serious question about does that really mean kids are smarter? Or that it means that states are better at gaming the system and making the test, in essence, easier to pass? This is - it was used as a debate nationally. Almost all states since the pass of No Child Left Behind have made adjustments to their testing system.

And when I say adjustments, I mean things like changing a cut score so it's easier to pass, increasing the number of kids that are in a subgroup so - that's counted for the test. SO, basically, in a school, you have to have 50 African-American kids as opposed to 40. And so some schools, they'd only have 45. So that sub-group doesn't count anymore. What's happened basically is that less kids count, and so it's sort of easier to jump over the bar.

MARTIN: Do you think most attention is focused on the testing requirements for the kids, but the law also prioritizes teacher qualifications. Has anything really changed, though, in the way that teachers are evaluated in their professional lives as a result of this law?

Mr. HOFF: Not really in how they're evaluated. It's focused more on the qualifications they have to prove in order to get a job. Current teachers, as I understand it, really haven't had to do much differently in order to keep their jobs. There's a lot of talk out there in using the data developed from these test scores across all 50 states as a way to evaluate teachers and determine whether they're effective. And if they are effective in getting student to increase their scores over the course of the year, they would, you know, retain their qualification.

MARTIN: David, you heard Kate describe the ongoing debate is is the law really improving education for kids? Are kids learning more? Are they being held more accountable for learning what they really need to function in the world? And Kate raised the question of whether the test scores are really improving -because the kids are learning more, or are people just go to gaming the system?

And the other question, of course, that's been raised is whether it has lessened the quality of education that some kids receive because it puts so much focus on testing that some of the things that make education rich are being lost like music and art and things of that sort, especially in places that don't have a lot of resources.

Mr. HOFF: I've heard Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings say several times that she doesn't think teaching to the test is a bad thing if the tests actually reflect knowledge that you expect out of children. In general, the Bush administration, I don't think has change - has any proposals out there that would change those tests. I think there are many in the field of education measurement - those that develop tests - that would like to see changes, that would like to see better tests so that these tests are more comprehensive and show a wider - or require students to show wider range of skills and a wider range of knowledge.

In doing those things, though, they can be very expensive. And when you're talking about testing, essentially every child from grade three to eight and then again once in high school in this country, it gets very expensive to not just create a test, but then have someone score it under those circumstances.

MARTIN: So what do you think? Do you think it's going to be reauthorized?

Mr. HOFF: I think there's no question that this bill will be reauthorized in some form because if it goes a way, 20-some billion dollars a year will not be going out to school districts, and that's something that no member of Congress wants to answer to.

MARTIN: And, Kate, is there one or two things that the educators in Illinois, whom you cover, really want to see changed?

Ms. GROSSMAN: One thing the people really want is what they call growth model, which is basically that you got some credits for progress even if you don't hit the target. So say, you are supposed to have 55 percent of your kids reading at grade level. You don't get there, but you made a lot of progress from last year. Right now you get nothing for that. So there is a pilot - the U.S. Department of Ed has a pilot, and there's a lot of movement towards this. And I think people are hopeful that there will be some adjustments in the re-authorization to give schools some of this credit, which is really due when they do a good job but they don't hit the target.

MARTIN: And you know what? I didn't really ask about parents. And so, Kate, I want to ask you. Do you have any sense of what parents in the Chicago system think about No Child Left Behind? Do they think that it's improving their children's education?

Ms. GROSSMAN: I don't think so. I think there's a concern about the narrowing of the curriculum that it's just a sole focus on reading and math. I think there's a concern that it puts a lot more pressure on the schools and things are just more tense.

Generally, some parents see some of the good things that this, you know, brought more attention to education in general. There's more money for low-income schools. Certainly, it's good to have high standards, but I think people like the goals. They just don't like the way it's playing out.

MARTIN: Thank you so much. Kate Grossman is an education reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times. David Hoff is an associate editor at Education Week. And thank you both so much for joining me.

Mr. HOFF: My pleasure.

Ms. GROSSMAN: Thank you.

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