04/24/2007 11:11 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This Test Is Too Hard

For a time, Fairfax County, Virginia, educators were thinking about - some would say threatening to - give up $17 million in federal No Child Left Behind funds rather than give a test to ELL (bilingual) kids that they thought was too hard. Well, of course it is. Everyone knows that.

But threatening to give up NCLB funding? How 2003.

Under NCLB, schools are rated according to how kids perform on tests, and - in contrast to past practices in many parts of the country - they cannot exclude kids from annual testing just because they are English language learners, or special education, or troublesome brats.

Not only are all the kids tested, their scores are broken out into separate categories so everyone can see them - called subgroup disaggregation - and these scores can make or break whether a school's annual rating goes up or down.

For example, a school whose African-American kids do well but whose Hispanic kids are much lower would be dinged for the Hispanic group and encouraged to beef up their programs for those kids - even if the school's overall average was decent.

So everyone gets tested, including kids who have only recently arrived in the country. And that's problematic for lots of reasons, obvious and otherwise, and on the top of most of the agendas for things to "fix" when NCLB gets re-vamped sometime in the next two or three or four years.

At the last minute, Fairfax figured out to do what pretty much everyone else has: take the NCLB money, comply nominally with whatever those nincompoops in D.C. are telling you to do, and - within the rules, of course, find a way to do what you want.

Sure, Connecticut sued the Feds over having to test kids every year. But they kept taking the money while they did so. So, too, for Maine, Utah, Scarsdale, NY, Evanston, Il, and the bunch of other places where educators or lawmakers came up against some provision of NCLB they didn't like, protested and passed resolutions (and even legislation in some cases), and then backed down (or cut a deal).

In Fairfax's case, nominal compliance means making sure that teachers and ELL kids know that they can stop taking the test if it's too hard. All it takes is a shake of the head.

"A memo from the Virginia Department of Education on Thursday said students can "indicate to the test examiner either verbally, or non-verbally by shaking his/her head 'no'," according to The Washington Post, "that he or she is not able to complete any more items."

Sympathetic as I am to the plight of ELL kids and the anxieties of teachers about how their schools are going to be rated - yes, that's part of this - I can't imagine how this new policy is going to work out in practice.

In fact, all this thinking is making my head hurt - even though I haven't finished this post.

Teacher, I want to stop now.