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A shortening list of failing schools

States gauge progress of Bush's education reforms - and debate what it really shows.

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In New Jersey and South Carolina, big drops in the number of failing schools are being celebrated as evidence of improved educational systems.

In both Boston and Chicago, the entire school district has been placed on a "need of improvement" list - setting up a clash with the federal government over special tutoring.

Florida and California are somewhere in between: They've seen modest jumps in test scores, but view the improvements as just the calm before the storm.

As the latest report cards on schools and districts trickle out, they're giving the public a snapshot not only of the nation's education system but also of the successes and failures of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), President Bush's landmark 2001 education law. So far this year, the results have been better than many critics expected: Student achievement is up, and the lists of schools on state watch lists because of poor academic performance are getting shorter in nearly every state.

None of this means the nation's public schools have suddenly become Harvards without the ivy. Some analysts, in fact, warn that the trend may be deceptive: The shorter watch lists, for instance, may have more to do with bureaucratic changes than academic gains. And next year, the target achievement levels students need to reach under NCLB will jump in many states.

But others see the gains as an important sign that educators and administrators are focusing their attention where they need to. At the least, defenders of No Child Left Behind say, the dire predictions of critics about large numbers of failing schools as a result of the law have not come true.

More important, they see NCLB as responsible for an important culture shift in the nation's public schools, toward a reliance on hard numbers that offer a precise yardstick of how schools are doing.

"I know lots of folks out there are impatient with all the testing, but it is the barometer by which you can help students if you use it correctly," says Kathy Christie, a researcher at the Education Commission of the States in Denver, Colo.

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