"No Child" Target Is Called Out of Reach; Goal of 100% proficiency debated as Congress weighs renewal
Front Page Story. And here's a neat and tidy way to describe NCLB: the perfection standard.
The political posturing rolls on.
by Amit R. Paley
No Child Left Behind, the landmark federal education law, sets a lofty
standard: that all students tested in reading and math will reach grade
level by 2014. Even when the law was enacted five years ago, almost no
one believed that standard was realistic.
But now, as Congress begins to debate renewing the law, lawmakers and
education officials are confronting the reality of the approaching
deadline and the difficult political choice between sticking with the
vision of universal proficiency or backing away from it.
"There is a zero percent chance that we will ever reach a 100 percent
target," said Robert L. Linn, co-director of the National Center for
Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA. "But
because the title of the law is so rhetorically brilliant, politicians
are afraid to change this completely unrealistic standard. They don't
want to be accused of leaving some children behind."
The debate over the perfection standard encapsulates the key arguments
for and against No Child Left Behind.
Critics, including some teachers unions and many testing experts, view
the law as a forced march toward an impossible education nirvana. They
are lobbying Congress to reduce the 100 percent target and delay the
2014 deadline. They are also pushing for the elimination of sanctions --
which can cost millions of dollars and result in school takeovers --
that school systems face for failing to make yearly progress toward the
But critics face an uphill challenge because of the rhetorical power of
the argument for a universal proficiency target and a deadline. Anything
less, advocates say, will hurt children, especially society's most
vulnerable: poor and minority students.
"We need to stay the course," U.S. Deputy Education Secretary Raymond
Simon said. "The mission is doable, and we don't need to back off that
President Bush is pushing this year for reauthorization of one of his
top domestic programs. In a joint House-Senate hearing yesterday, senior
Democrats and Republicans said they would work toward renewal of the
law. But in interviews in the days before the hearing, some key
lawmakers said that universal proficiency is all but impossible to meet.
"The idea of 100 percent is, in any legislation, not achievable," said
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate education
committee. "There isn't a member of Congress or a parent or a student
that doesn't understand that."
Kennedy added that the law's universal proficiency standard served to
inspire students and teachers. But "it's too early in the process to
predict whether we'll consider changes" to the 2014 deadline, he said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. education secretary and
supporter of the law, said Americans don't want politicians to lower
"Are we going to rewrite the Declaration of Independence and say only 85
percent of men are created equal?" Alexander asked. "Most of our
politics in America is about the disappointment of not meeting the high
goals we set for ourselves."
Foes and supporters alike praise the law for drawing attention to
student achievement gaps. The law requires testing for all students in
reading and math from grades 3 through 8 and once in high school; it
also requires reporting of scores for groups of students including
racial and ethnic minorities, those from low-income families, those with
limited English skills and those with disabilities who receive special
But testing experts say there are vast academic differences among
children of the same racial or socioeconomic background. Countries with
far less racial diversity than the United States still find wide
variations in student performance. Even in relatively homogenous
Singapore, for example, a world leader in science and math tests, a
quarter of the students tested are not proficient in math, and 49
percent fall short in science.
"Most people are afraid that once you acknowledge this variation, then
you have to tolerate major inequities between black and white students,"
said Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University education professor. "That's
not necessarily true, but that's why the political world does not really
address the issue."
Although no major school system is known to have reached 100 percent
proficiency, Education Department officials pointed to individual
schools across the country that have reached the standard as evidence
that it is possible. In Virginia, schools have achieved universal
proficiency on reading and math tests 45 times since 2002, officials said.
The only school they cited in the Washington region as having met that
mark was the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in
Fairfax County, a regional school with selective admissions. Principal
Evan M. Glazer said his school, which has an elite reputation, was
hardly a representative example. On whether the nation can replicate
that success, Glazer said: "I don't think it's very realistic."
Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale said it was "absurd"
to expect total proficiency, especially when federal officials require
immigrant children who have been in U.S. schools for little more than a
year to meet the standard. His 164,000-student system, the largest in
the Washington region, is sparring with the Education Department over
the immigrant testing rule.
Dale and other critics of the law have called for No Child Left Behind
to measure the growth of students from year to year instead of expecting
them to meet fixed benchmarks. But Dale said he understood why federal
officials and lawmakers take a different view.
"How can you publicly state it's okay to have some children not meet
standards?" Dale said. "Politically, you're committing suicide if you
Some experts predict that states will weaken their definition of
proficiency to make it appear that all students are on track. The law
requires students to meet "challenging academic standards" but allows
each state to define proficiency on its own terms and design its own tests.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who voted against the law in 2001 and
remains a leading critic, derided the universal proficiency standard.
"It's just like a communist country saying that they used to have 100
percent participation in elections," Hoekstra said. "You knew it wasn't
true, but a bureaucrat could come up with that answer. And that's what
will happen here."
Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), ranking Republican on the House
education committee, said the 2014 deadline forces educators to pay
attention to each student. He said he is open to slight changes in the
law to exempt certain students with disabilities from the proficiency
requirement. But he said he won't back down from the law's core ideal,
citing his own six children and 28 grandchildren. "Which one of them
would I like to leave behind?" McKeon asked.
Amit R. Paley
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES