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Realism Needed in 'No Child' Act: Current Goals Out of Sight

Ohanian Comment: This editorial seems to start out making a good point, but then the writers jump off a cliff. They want to rank all the schools in America from high to low. While we're ranking things, let's do the same for hospitals, hardware stores. . . and don't forget Congressional representatives.

Define success as perfection, and what you get is near-universal failure.

That seems to sum up the reason why some two dozen Colorado school districts, responsible for educating roughly 80 percent of the children in the state's public schools, failed to meet targets for "adequate yearly progress" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Setting targets so high they will never be met is likely to discredit the whole enterprise, so reforming the No Child law should be a high priority of the next Congress.

The education act sets a goal of 100 percent proficiency on state tests by 2014, not only overall but for identifiable subgroups, including racial and ethnic minorities, low-income children, English learners and so forth, in every subject. In addition, it requires that schools and districts demonstrate each year that they are raising test scores fast enough to meet the goal.

The reason for adopting the subgroup goals was to force districts to focus attention on precisely those children most at risk of being left behind. And it is having the desired effect. The Education Trust recently released a study showing that in most states with at least three years' worth of testing data, achievement gaps between ethnic groups have been shrinking while overall achievement has been going up. Not universally, and not fast enough to meet the 2014 deadline, but an encouraging sign of progress nonetheless.

In Colorado, the achievement gap in reading between white and African-American students narrowed by 5 percentage points, and between white and Hispanic students by 4 percentage points. Only for American Indians did it widen, by 2 points.

So where's the problem? First off, 100 percent proficiency is not attainable. A high but achievable standard could be based on the performance of the most successful districts. Why not rank all of America's school districts from lowest to highest on the performance of each subgroup, and set the 2014 goal for that subgroup at today's 80th percentile? No one can say "it can't be done" if 3,000 school districts are doing it. Yet bringing the bottom 80 percent of districts up to that level, for every one of those subgroups, would represent enormous progress. And the schools already above that level might be asked to aim for the 90th percentile, or the 98th.

Another problem is that the larger the district, the more subgroups there are with 30 students or more, enough to trigger the act's requirements. So Cherry Creek, for example, had to meet 118 different subgroup goals last year, and was counted as failing because it met only 94 percent of them.

"We don't ever expect to make it if certain conditions remain in play," said spokeswoman Tustin Amole of the Cherry Creek district.

If you get no credit for progress and you know the goal is unattainable anyway, why try?

It's fair to judge districts on how much progress they're making, but it's also fair to compare them with districts that face similar challenges. That would give districts a reason to find out what's working elsewhere so they can do it too.

No matter who is elected president, the No Child Left Behind Act will need revision. Otherwise educators will stop taking it seriously.

— editorial
Rocky Mountain News


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