RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The federal education reforms known as No Child Left Behind are getting more pushback than ever. State school officials say they need emergency relief from the 10-year-old law's requirements. Without it, they say a huge number of schools could face sanctions. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.
LARRY ABRAMSON: The rebellion has begun in Idaho. Under No Child Left Behind, the state is supposed to identify a growing number of schools as failing, because they can't get enough students to pass a state test. State schools superintendent Tom Luna says he just won't do it.
Mr. TOM LUNA (Superintendent of Schools, Idaho): We're not going to identify more schools as "needs improvement," because we know that that is not the correct way to identify them.
ABRAMSON: Every year, the law's targets keep rising. Luna says many schools that have made great strides in improving achievement still fall below that bar as it floats upward. Congress was expected to make adjustments to give schools credit for their progress. But Tom Luna says, in Washington, the law has become a political football in a gridlocked Congress.
Mr. LUNA: And we're not going to be a pawn in those games.
ABRAMSON: Now, technically Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could punish Idaho if the state refuses to obey the law. But Duncan may have encouraged this reaction by announcing recently he would grant waivers to states that could not meet the law's standards. Duncan said he had no choice, since Congress has failed to renew the law.
What Duncan probably had in mind was the reaction from Kentucky. Rather than rebelling, State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday is respectfully asking Secretary Duncan to cut him some slack, but he's proposing to give something in return.
Mr. TERRY HOLLIDAY (Education Commissioner, Kentucky): We're requesting from secretary ability to utilize a more comprehensive accountability model for our No Child Left Behind reporting.
ABRAMSON: So, Holliday is asking permission to break some of the law's requirements. But in exchange, he's ready to add some new elements to his state's plans for evaluating students.
Mr. HOLLIDAY: We're adding two components - growth over time down to the student level and college and career readiness, which both of those were a focus of the president and secretary's blueprint.
ABRAMSON: Holliday means that students will be judged by whether their test scores are steadily improving, and whether they are ready for college or a job. As he noted, those are measures that have a seal of approval from the administration already, so it should improve Kentucky's chances of getting a waiver. Without that waiver, Holliday says 85 percent of the state's school districts will be labeled as in need of improvement.
Now, not everyone thinks that the law should be changed because schools can't meet NCLB's standards.�
Mr. SANDY KRESS: Well, I just think it's wrong.
ABRAMSON: Sandy Kress helped push No Child Left Behind through Congress during the Bush administration. Now with a Texas law firm, Kress says he is worried that these efforts will cover up education failures. He says a key tenet of the law is that schools cannot ignore low performance among low-income kids, minority students, and the disabled.
Mr. KRESS: That is to say that no school is let off the hook if those students are falling by the wayside. Why should we compromise on that?
ABRAMSON: And that's the question some are asking - whether the latest controversy about No Child Left Behind is a real effort to spur needed reforms or whether it's really an admission that higher standards are out of reach for some students.
Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.
[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Our story implied that Idaho was the first state to refuse to comply with No Child Left Behind. Actually, Montana sent a letter to the Education Department in April, announcing that state would not be raising its NCLB requirements. That letter preceded Idaho's announcement.]