A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

February 11, 2000

Dear Chief State School Officer:

Late last year I was sworn in by Secretary Riley as the Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education. I am honored to have been entrusted with this responsibility, and I am looking forward to working closely with you this year. I want to take this opportunity to tell you about my top priority: continuing the nationwide effort to raise academic standards for all students.

This coming year will be a critical one for standards-based education reform. Over the past five years, every State has made progress toward implementing higher standards. Now, in many States and school districts new, higher standards are beginning to "count" for schools and students for the first time. In many communities this stronger accountability is accompanied by increased concern about the schools and students that will not initially measure up. As you know, in some jurisdictions these concerns are leading to pressures to back away from higher standards or the assessments used to measure progress toward meeting them.

While we must always be prepared to make midcourse corrections where appropriate, we cannot back away from high standards, appropriate assessments, and real accountability. The promise of the standards movement has always been that higher standards would be used to lift our students and schools up, not drive them down. This means that the right response to concerns about low performing students and schools is to redouble our efforts to give them the help they need. I recognize that the burden of that response often falls largely on your shoulders.

Those of us at the federal level can help foster an environment that supports you in making the tough decisions necessary to support high standards. You can count on President Clinton and Secretary Riley to help by continuing to speak out in favor of higher standards and strong accountability, and by continuing to make the investments in better prepared teachers, expanded after-school services, smaller classes, and other proven approaches to strengthening schools and providing students with extra help and opportunities to learn. The President's budget for FY 2001 proposes to increase funding for these and other elementary and secondary proposals by $2.5 billion.

The Title I program plays an especially important role here as well. The 1994 reauthorization of Title I required States to set the same challenging standards for students served by Title I that are applied to other students in the State, to measure student and school progress toward meeting the standards, and to hold schools accountable for the results they achieve. The Title I requirements for State performance standards were to be in place by the 1997-98 school year. These requirements for aligned assessments and accountability for results, must be met by the beginning of next school year, September 1, 2000. By participating in Title I, every State has committed to meet this timeline.

The Education Department takes this deadline very seriously, as I know you do.

These requirements are at the heart of a five-year effort to strengthen Title I and to improve education for our most disadvantaged students. The success of this effort depends on effectively holding schools accountable for the performance of all of its students. A number of States do not yet appear to have procedures for testing all students in the grades being assessed, particularly students with disabilities or limited English proficiency. Excluding these students from assessment and reporting systems undermines Title I, because it means that our schools will not be accountable for the success of a rapidly growing segment of the student population.

The Education Department has a statutory obligation to require States to comply with the law. Without clear evidence of commitment, significant action, and movement we are prepared to use various mechanisms to ensure compliance, taking into account the specific circumstances, if necessary. These mechanisms include providing conditional approval of program applications, providing funding of Title I programs through installment payments based on meeting specific conditions, compliance agreements, and withholding program or administrative funds.

I understand that some States are having difficulty meeting the statutory timeline for implementing final assessment systems. Where there is a clear commitment, significant action, and demonstrable movement towards meeting the Title I requirements, the Education Department is prepared to work with States to resolve possible compliance issues. For example, the law allows a one-year extension of the aligned assessment system requirement if needed to correct problems uncovered by a field test.

In order to give every State the benefit of a high quality review and timely feedback, we have established a quarterly peer review schedule as outlined in Judith Johnson's letter to you of November 12, 1999 (attached). We will shortly begin reviewing information submitted by four States. I strongly encourage you to schedule a review as early as possible so that the Department can approve your final assessment system before the September 1 deadline. The Office of Elementary and Secondary Education is also prepared to conduct an in-depth review of your status at any time in order to give you expert advice on the additional steps your State will need to take. Please contact Judith Johnson in my office at (202) 401-0113 to discuss the review process.

I look forward to working with you this year on these and other issues. Please feel free to contact me directly to discuss any issue I have raised or any other issue involving the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. You can reach me at (202) 401-0113.


Michael Cohen
Assistant Secretary

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