After nearly three years of the No Child Left Behind Act where everything seems to balance on testing, are our children in Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park being left behind?

“I’m not saying that this is necessarily the best way but it is what we have to deal with,” said Connie Collins, District 97 superintendent, after a Monday Oct. 27 forum with local education leaders to discuss the law. “And it has created an environment where we are looking at kids in a different way. It brings the idea that we need to view every child as an individual. So, while there are negatives”the funding to the districts was never provided”there are positives associated with the law.”

Collins was one of six administrators who were part of a panel discussion at Holmes Elementary School, co-sponsored by The League of Women Voters of Oak Park & River Forest, the Dist. 97 PTO Council, and the NAACP Oak Park Branch.

Most of the evening was spent explaining the mechanics of the law and the requirements. And often the educators dwelled a great deal in jargon, trying to explain things such as “assessment practices that are authentically based,” which actually means tests that are designed to put theories into practical terms for children.

The audience of about 40 did learn that every state has its own test”there is no federal test to match the federal mandate. Here it is the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, or the ISAT. And this year those assessments will be made from the ISATs for grades three through eight. The scores for all groups must continue to improve for a school to make “adequate yearly progress” and not lose federal money or be sanctioned.

But it was left to Randolph Tinder, Forest Park’s District 91 superintendent, to step in with overall assessments of the law, when he said that it was just a back road to instituting a national voucher system. “My opinion is that No Child Left Behind makes great politics and wonderful sound bites and horrible public policy.”

Later, Tinder said, “Eventually, if you follow No Child Left Behind to its logical conclusion, the government will be running every school in Illinois. How are they going to do that?” And in discussing the transfers, Tinder said, “The paperwork that is involved in all this is onerous and there is no benefit to the students.”

The massive federal law, which was passed in 2002, has a lofty objective”all children must meet grade-level requirements by 2014. And each year, there are specific benchmarks and mandates requiring schools and districts to show that all students”disabled, minority, poor and those for whom English is a second language”are making progress and meeting these federally pre-approved standards.

But from that point, how the standards are met and who determines what is not always clear. Students are classified in “subgroups” and each state designates how many children constitute a subgroup. In Illinois, 40 is the minimum number of children in a subgroup. So a school with 39 special education students would not have enough students to count this group separately. But a school with just one more child in special education would.

And while there has been a backlash against the law in some school districts across the country that have chosen to opt out of the law and forego the federal funding tied to the requirements, Collins said Oak Park could not afford to do that.

The bi-partisan law was never given adequate funding, so while in theory students in failing schools can receive tutoring or can be transferred to other schools, the reality is that the money is not often there for the tutoring or the transportation to the other school”if there is even another one available. The law is also punitive”punishing schools for not meeting standards, as opposed to rewarding those who make it.

“There are punishments that are to help us do better,” said Thomas Sindelar, principal of Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School. “But most of my career, when you punish kids, they don’t do better.”

Susy Schultz is the co-chair of the Julian Middle School PTO and as such is a member of PTO Council. She’s also associate publisher of Chicago Parent, a sister publication of Forest Park Review.