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NCLB Outrages

In education, are we hitting the high standards ceiling?

Ohanian Comment: Ever the Standardisto, Schrag boasts that California standards contain rigor and implies the rest of the nation should do likewise. He's one step away from demanding national standards.

I devoted a chapter in One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards to the Californication of education. It isn't pretty.

by Peter Schrag

Sooner or later, it was almost inevitable:

* That we'd get a national report indicating that thousands of schools are sacrificing the teaching of history, science and music for intensive and near-exclusive concentration on reading and math, the subjects that are the basis of the high-stakes accountability system established by NCLB, the federal No Child Left Behind education law.

* That there would be a push in the Legislature to lower California's definition of proficiency so that more California schools would meet NCLB requirements that each school make "adequate yearly progress" and avoid federal sanctions if it didn't.

Both were perfectly predictable from what's happened in other states, some of it going back well before NCLB was even enacted.

The national report came in a survey by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. It was leaked to the New York Times and appeared Sunday. Its prime example was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High School in North Sacramento, one of California's low performing schools, where 125 of the school's 950 students take nothing but reading, math and gym.

Thousands of other schools are doing the same thing to raise achievement scores and avoid embarrassment and federal sanctions.

The legislative push comes in the form of a bill, AB 2975 by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, that would key the state's academic standards to the mediocre demands of CAHSEE, the California High School Exit Exam, whose language arts requirements are pegged to the 10th-grade level and whose math requirement is set at an eigh`th-grade level.

California's academic standards - the standards that define proficiency - are now national models for academic rigor. But since the feds, in one of those nonsensical legislative compromises, allow each state to set its own proficiency standards, they effectively rate and sanction schools in states with high standards much more severely than those in states with mediocre standards.

In effect, the system creates incentives to water down academic requirements, as some other states have already done, thus automatically raising student proficiency and avoiding federal sanctions.

As a measure of the difference for California, yesterday the state Department of Education released data showing that 89 percent of the high school class of 2006 had passed the high school exit exam.

There are still troublesome gaps between the passing rates of whites and Asians (96 percent and 94 percent respectively) and African Americans and Latinos (80 percent and 82 percent respectively). But given the difference with achievement on the state's own standards tests, on which only 42 percent of California students were rated proficient in English and 45 percent in math, it's an indication of what's at stake if a bill such as Hancock's were to pass.

The arguments on both sides are familiar. High expectations tend to drive up achievement. But excessively high expectations are unrealistic, and will lead to the narrow programs that the Center on Education Policy reports on, and maybe worse. They also lead, inevitably, to political pressure to ratchet down state standards, as has been the case in Wisconsin, Texas, Missouri and Arizona.

The pressure to focus on drill and kill programs to prepare students for tests has also been clear. The model for NCLB was the Texas accountability system, then called TAAS, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, which George W. Bush didn't create but over which he presided as governor in the years leading up to his run for president.

As early as 1999, and perhaps even before, it was clear that in Texas schools with large proportions of students at risk of poor performance, teachers would devote a full two months, and sometimes more, on intensive test preparation and little else before the test date. And since regular teachers were drafted into those drills, other students took make-work mini-courses in first aid, country-and-western dancing and hunter safety.

There were TAAS camps, pep rallies and drills. There were commercial drill programs like PractTAAS, a cluster of 13 TAAS-like mini-exams, Incredible Tutor for Macs or Windows and all manner of others. In some schools, 10th-grade students who failed the TAAS exit exams took TAAS math or TAAS English until they passed. As a result, one laconic principal said, "a lot of other things get shorted."

Hancock's bill is not likely to get past the governor, assuming it even gets that far. With his latter-day education offensive, the Terminator is not going to turn wobbly on this one. But as more and more schools run up against NCLB's unrealistic expectation that every student should be proficient in the major subjects by 2013-14 - proficient, again, by state standards - something will have to give.

State school officials are trying to get the feds to change that inflexible target to a "growth model" whereby, as in California, schools are measured by annual progress, not pinned to some goal of perfection. At the same time, California's own school targets are keyed to achievement standards that would require 70 percent of students to be above average. That's Lake Wobegon.

— Peter Schrag
Sacramento Bee


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