MIAMI — By almost any measure, Norma Butler Bossard Elementary is a top performing school in Miami: It has consistently been rated an `A' by the state, and students have achieved high scores on Florida's standardized math and reading exams.
Yet when it comes to the federal No Child Left Behind law, the school hasn't lived up to expectations. Last year, 79 percent of students had to be at grade level in reading and 80 percent in math. Overall, the students exceeded those goals. But two groups – English language learners and the economically disadvantaged – did not.
"This is a crystallization of the challenge," said Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.
Responding to an outcry from the states and congressional inaction on rewriting the law, President Barack Obama on Thursday told 10 states, including Florida, that they will be freed from the strictest elements of the law, including the requirement that all students be up to par in math and reading by 2014. In exchange for flexibility, states had to present individualized plans aimed at ensuring all students leave school ready for college and career. The plans must set new achievement targets, rewarding high performing schools and focusing on those that are struggling.
"We can combine greater freedom with greater accountability," Obama said at the White House.
Florida, home to several of the nation's largest school districts, offers a look into what went wrong with the law and why states are now clamoring for relief.
No Child Left Behind was signed into law by former President George W. Bush a decade ago with the intention of closing the vast achievement gaps between poor and affluent students, whites and minorities. A key part of the legislation requires states to set annual benchmarks for the percentage of students scoring proficient in math and reading on state standardized exams, leading up to 100 percent proficiency in 2014.
Each school is held accountable for the performance of every student group – minorities, English learners, and the poor – in meeting those benchmarks.
If any one of those groups does not meet the targets, the school falls out of compliance. Schools that don't meet the goals for two consecutive years are labeled "in need of improvement," and a series of corrective steps comes into play, including student transfers to a higher performing school, providing tutoring, replacing staff or even closing.
Florida had passed significant education reforms shortly before No Child Left Behind went into effect, including an A-to-F school grading system based on student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. After 2002, there were two separate school evaluations – the state's and the one provided through No Child Left Behind.
Increasingly, those painted two contrasting pictures of a school's progress.
While the number of schools in Florida that earned an `A' on the state's annual report card has steadily increased, the number meeting No Child Left Behind requirements has dramatically decreased. Last year, just 10 percent of Florida elementary, middle and high schools met the annual proficiency benchmarks required under the federal law.
"Are we saying over 90 percent of schools are `failing?'" Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson said. "The answer is no."
In many of the schools, just one group of students was behind. At Miami's Norma Butler Bossard Elementary, a majority Hispanic school, 78 percent of poor students scored at grade level in reading – one point behind the No Child Left Behind target. English language learners lagged behind by nine points in reading and two in math. The majority, however, were performing above the goals set by the law.
"It was confusing to parents and students and teachers when you get two sets of criteria and two sets of grades," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "You begin to wonder which one's real."
Then there are schools like Holmes Elementary, a school in a struggling neighborhood north of Miami's downtown. Just 18 percent of students were at grade level in math in the 2002-03 school year. By last year, that number had jumped to 65 percent – a 47 percentage point percent increase. Yet students had still not caught up to the rising numbers expected under No Child Left Behind and the school had been in danger of being closed next year.
"That is an iconic school in Miami," Carvalho said. "The previous performance was not acceptable and we changed everything about that school."
Closing it, he said, "would have been extinguishing the beacon of hope."
Robinson is reluctant to say No Child Left Behind didn't work – he praised it for shining a light on the performance of all student subgroups – but says that over time, it rubbed up against the state's accountability system.
"It just didn't make any sense," he said.
Many also say the 2014 goal to have all students proficient in math and reading is unrealistic.
"There's always going to be children that need additional help and there's always going to be children who are ahead of the curve," Blanton said. "It was treating every single class of students exactly the same."
District leaders are hoping that under the waiver a school's long-term progress will be taken into account and that they'll have more flexibility on interventions. Under the current law, districts that repeatedly fail to meet the benchmarks are required to set aside federal money to pay for outside tutoring. But many researchers say that's been ineffective.
"The results are not there," Carvalho said.
Carvalho said that another big burden of the law was providing transportation for students in failing schools to one that is higher performing. With larger percentages of schools falling out of compliance with the law, opportunities to transfer were vanishing.
"It becomes very tough to accommodate students," he said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he was enthusiastic about the opportunity to have more local control.
"Anytime we can do that where we get to make our own decisions because we know how to take care of our own children that's a big positive," he said.
Associated Press writers Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee and Tamara Lush in Tampa contributed to this report.