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The Obama administration wants states to focus more of their attention on their lowest performing schools, where large numbers of students are failing state tests year after year. But some advocates worry that's shifting attention away from kids who are struggling at good schools.

As NPR's Larry Abramson, many fear that minority and special education students will be ignored.

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LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Mill Creek Middle School in Lusby, Maryland is sunny and bright, the halls are orderly, students look engaged. And, in fact, most are passing state tests in reading and math. It doesn't look like a failing school.

REBECCA BOWEN: We are, by no way, shape or form failing whatsoever. Do we still have some work to do? Absolutely.

Principal Rebecca Bowen sounds frustrated because, according federal and state standards, this is a failing school. That's because low-income and special education students were a few points behind the goals set on standardized tests under No Child Left Behind.

ABRAMSON: Bowen says she's already working on bridging that gap. She points me to a math class where the teacher is using a special intervention for students who are not yet proficient according to state tests.

BOWEN: Right now, that young lady is working on an informal assessment because she has received intervention and they're seeing if she, in fact, was able to master the skills in which she received additional support.

ABRAMSON: These are the kinds of efforts that Maryland is likely to highlight if it applies for a waiver so that schools like this one can escape the stigma of the failing school label.

Calvert County School Superintendent, Jack Smith, says that word undermines all the good work this school is doing.

JACK SMITH: It really damages the sense of efficacy of the staff and of the students and it also undermines the credibility of the school and the confidence of the families.

ABRAMSON: According to the administration's plan, Maryland should be focusing on truly failing schools, the dropout factories where vast numbers of kids can't read or do math at grade level. Schools like Mill Creek, where most students are doing fine, could escape sanctions.

In fact, the White House proposal would cut some slack to 85 percent of the nation's better schools, but even at successful schools, there are plenty of struggling students.

IRIS BOND GILL: We may be just losing 85 percent of all schools.

ABRAMSON: Iris Bond Gill is with the Campaign for High School Equity. She points out that the very reason No Child Left Behind was passed was that many states were ignoring kids who needed extra help.

GILL: Historically, we've seen that. This really has been the role of the federal government in terms of interventions with low-income students and low-income schools and that's a role that we don't want to see the federal government backtrack on.

ABRAMSON: The Department of Education says no schools will get a complete pass under the waiver plan. To get those waivers, states must prove they have a system in place to ensure all students are making progress.

Spokesman Justin Hamilton says the department will use one criterion when states apply for waivers.

JUSTIN HAMILTON: Is it good for kids? Does it help prepare students for success in college and career and put them on a track for success in life?

ABRAMSON: State and local educators say there is no chance that things will return to the bad old days. They point to data tracking systems that gauge student progress and to programs like those at Mill Creek Middle School to help struggling students.

Sandy Kress helped write No Child Left Behind when he worked for the Bush administration. He says the Obama administration's plan to grant carefully designed waivers is a big risk.

SANDY KRESS: If they do this right, it's good. If they do it wrong, it's a step backwards.

ABRAMSON: The administration has portrayed the waiver plan as a chance to loosen federal strings and let education reform bloom in the states, but if the feds back off too far, some wonder whether some kids will simply fall off the map.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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