The U.S. Department of Education has approved Maine’s plan to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act.

But some details remain in question.

Signed by President Bush in January 2002, the 1,100-page No Child Left Behind Act reforms education by using standards, testing and accountability. Because there is no federal standard, schools are judged successful or not based on students’ performance on state tests measuring state standards under the reform act. Schools whose students don’t make yearly progress are required to pay for tutoring, to bus students to another public school and to face penalties.

All students are required to meet all standards by 2013.

Under the act, states had to tell the Department of Education how they planned to meet the law’s requirements, close any achievement gap and ensure that all students meet state standards.

All states submitted drafts of their plans to the Department of Education by the end of January. The department reviewed those plans, offered technical assistance and provided peer reviews of each state’s proposal.

On Tuesday, Education Secretary Rod Paige announced that every state – including Maine – now had an approved plan.

In a letter sent to the state’s school superintendents this week, Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said Maine will use a “stair-step approach” for annual improvements, gradually increasing the percentage of students who need to meet state standards every year.

She said the state also plans to identify schools whose students have not improved in reading this July and in math this September. That two-step process was necessary because the state’s standardized reading test was given months before the math test and scores will not be available at the same time. Because the test was revamped and students will take both math and reading at once next year, the state won’t have to rely on such a two-step process in the future.

But while Maine has gotten approval for much of its plan, one significant detail remains in question: will the state be able to use local assessments, such as portfolios, projects and reports, to gauge how well children are learning in grades not tested by the state standardized test.

Those local assessments are the backbone of Maine’s Learning Results, a set of standards that state educators have spent years and millions of dollars implementing.

In her letter, Gendron said the Education Department is concerned that local assessments won’t be “valid, reliable and comparable.” For example, a Lewiston fifth-grader’s portfolio may not provide educators with the same insight as an Auburn fifth-grader’s standardized test.

Gendron said a decision will be made soon.

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