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Throw Out 'No Child' Lawsuit

March 7, 2006
Commentary by David Medina

Mirror, mirror on the wall, what's the smartest state of all?

Thou, O Connecticut, art the smartest in the land.

In the 2004-05 school year, for example, fourth-graders who took the Connecticut Mastery Test scored highest in the nation in writing, tied for highest in reading and placed second in mathematics.

Connecticut is so taken with its own smartness that state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court contending that years of CMT success should relieve the state from complying with key provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Connecticut also has what is perhaps the largest achievement disparity in the nation between white English-speaking students and their low-income black and Hispanic counterparts - precisely what the act was created to close.

To that end, No Child requires that states test students from grades 3 to 8 every year and once in grades 10 through 12 in math, reading or language arts. It requires testing non-English-speaking students after their first year in the school system and demands that special education students be tested at grade level.

The federal government has given Connecticut $718,987,461 in extra Title I cash (money earmarked for poor kids) since 2002 to meet the terms of No Child Left Behind.

In early 2005, as the deadline time for the latest implementations of tests was approaching, state Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg began asking U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to waive them, saying they were expensive and unnecessary.

Offering standardized tests in grades 4, 6, 8 and 10 has proved so successful, Sternberg maintained, that Connecticut doesn't need to provide them in grades 3, 5 and 7. It can get by on "formative" testing, meaning a quiz every few weeks. English-language learners should be phased in to testing over three years, Sternberg asserted. And special education students should be tested at instructional level, which is almost always much lower than grade level.

Spellings understandably denied the waivers because the state couldn't demonstrate that its solution - essentially doing nothing new - was going to close the achievement gap.

But she offered Sternberg a decent compromise: Connecticut could retain its precious title as the Center of the Smartness Universe, save a few bucks and maybe even save a few kids, if it tests students who speak limited English in their native languages and administers multiple-choice questions for grades 3, 5 and 7.

Sternberg would have none of it. Testing in native languages is still too expensive and multiple-choice questions are beneath Connecticut's dignity.

Spellings understandably reaffirmed her denials, and Blumenthal sued her. His lawsuit makes a convoluted claim that by exercising her authority, Spellings saddled Connecticut with a multimillion-dollar unfunded mandate, prohibited in one clause of No Child Left Behind.

That clause, however, is open to interpretation, and Blumenthal's reading conflicts with more explicit language elsewhere in the law.

What the lawsuit tiptoes around is Connecticut's horrendous achievement gap. Sternberg tried to put a positive spin on this glaring detail when she stated in this newspaper that Connecticut's black and Hispanic students score about the same or better than their counterparts in most other states. It's just that Connecticut's white students score so well, she explained, that they make the blacks and Hispanics look dumber than they are.

Unfortunately, No Child Left Behind doesn't give credit for having smarter dummies. It gives credit for having fewer.

For Connecticut to claim it supports the goals of No Child Left Behind as it clings to practices that undermine those objectives is sheer hypocrisy.

The NAACP, in asking court permission to intervene on Spellings' behalf, said it best: "Connecticut's action in bringing this lawsuit is analogous to a polluter claiming to support the Clean Water Act while petitioning for the ability to dump hazardous waste in to the Connecticut River."

If this lawsuit ever goes to trial, Connecticut will have perpetrated a masterful triumph of unmitigated arrogance over merit.

David Medina is an editorial writer at The Courant.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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